Precisionhawk, one of the leaders in the drone market, released a report this week outlining operational risks when flying drones beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS). Precisionhawk’s research comes from its participation in the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Pathfinder program, which was created to explore incremental expansion of drone operations in the national airspace. Precisionhawk’s director of airspace research, Dr. Allison Ferguson, said, “While we believe that technology would be useful for flying BVOLS, we needed a quantitative answer as to whether it would simply make the user’s life easier or it actually impacted the safety of the operation. The FAA needs a clear understanding of the risks associated with advanced drone operations, and [our] testing sets a visual baseline to measure the level of safety as we add enabling technologies.”

The research involved the use of a manned aircraft into the airspace where participants were asked to detect an intruder and choose from a series of actions to avoid potential collision. Each participant was also asked a series of questions before, during and after field operations to evaluate qualitative factors like stress, boredom and fatigue. A series of drone operations BVLOS were also conducted. Generally, pilots were able to detect an intruding aircraft from further away then a drone (being operated BVLOS) could. However, decision-making of both groups was nearly the same. Dr. Ferguson said, “A key takeaway [of this testing] is that there is always going to be variation when we rely exclusively on unassisted human ability to mitigate risk. Situational awareness technology can help make that operation more consistent over more of the population–which in turn, makes any risk prediction easier and more realistic.” Precisionhawk plans to start evaluating technologies that can be used to enhance safety during BVLOS drone operations in early January. “It’s not about taking humans out of the loop. It’s about letting technology do what it is designed to do: freeing up humans to do what humans are good at, like flexible decision-making,” said Dr. Ferguson.