The Boeing Company's unmanned aircraft subsidiary based in the Columbia River Gorge passed a milestone this week in commercializing drone technology.
Insitu is flying a small surveillance drone to inspect rail line for BNSF Railway. This is happening in rural New Mexico along a 132-mile stretch between the small towns of Tolar and Mountainair using a repurposed military model called the ScanEagle.
Insitu commercial and civil unmanned systems program manager Charlton Evans said the flights are groundbreaking because the drone is flying long distances in the national airspace.
"Our system is robust enough and the design assurance is high enough that we were able to prove that we could do this in a rural area on a limited basis without risk to people on the ground or in the air,” he said.
BNSF and Insitu are part of a select group of companies to partner with the Federal Aviation Administration to work out logistical and safety protocols for commercial unmanned flying. The FAA calls this its Pathfinder initiative.
"The fact that we are out here flying is revealing friction points and we are working through them daily," Evans added. "You can't understand something until you truly go do it."
The railroad hopes real-time video from drones can provide a more efficient means to check for obstructions or damage to the rails.
"It can see gaps in rail, aberrations in the rail itself, issues with rail ties," BNSF Railway spokesman Mike Trevino said. He said unmanned aircraft inspections will supplement, but not replace, the work of human rail inspectors. And it could make their jobs safer.
"We really see it as an additional opportunity to gather data," Trevino said. "The project gives us much more flexibility for our overall safety program."
Trevino said it is possible future testing with drones might take place over rural Northwest rail lines. "There are hard-to-get-to places in the Northwest that would also be ripe for using an unmanned aerial vehicle," he said.
Insitu said the New Mexico test flights, which started Sunday, are "the first commercial beyond visual line of sight operation with an unmanned aerial system in the contiguous 48 states."
Previously, the FAA approved commercial beyond-line-of-sight UAS flying for a couple of energy companies operating north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska.
The catapult-launched ScanEagle is powered by aviation diesel. Evans said during the test flights, the cigar-shaped, swept wing aircraft cruised about 1,000 feet above the surface. The roughly 35-pound unmanned plane was equipped with a transponder that transmitted its position to air traffic control similar to a small piloted aircraft.
Insitu, based in Bingen, Washington, hopes to find civil and commercial uses for its best known aircraft. Until now, the main customers for the defense contractor have been the U.S. and allied governments. To get access to a broader domestic market, the UAS industry needs the federal government to finalize rules for small drones in the national airspace.
Coincidentally, a U.S. Senate subcommittee heard testimony Wednesday about how to successfully integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace. Some lawmakers have expressed impatience with the pace of FAA rulemaking. FAA Administrator Michael Huerta praised the Insitu/BNSF demonstration as he described regulatory initiatives underway to register recreational drones and better educate those operators as well as to scrutinize and authorize promising commercial applications of unmanned aircraft systems.
"We do not want to stifle innovation, but we are never going to compromise on safety," Huerta said. "Working together with all interests, we are confident that we can balance safety and innovation."
In August, Insitu loaned a ScanEagle and two professional pilots to the National Park Service for a week to demonstrate its capabilities for wildfire monitoring. Evans said the firefighting application may blossom first because the airspace over wildfires is often closely controlled.
Separate from its Pathfinder initiative, the FAA has granted more than 2,000 exemptions to its current ban on commercial use of small unmanned aerial vehicles. These limited flight approvals for businesses require the licensed pilot at the controls fly the drone no higher than 400 feet above the ground while always keeping it in direct visual contact.
Common categories of businesses to receive FAA drone approvals include real estate agents, aerial photographers, Hollywood film makers and owners of sprawling infrastructure.