I've lost track of the number of times I've written about or have read about the critical need to operate drones beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) for commercial purposes. Many have positioned BVLOS operations as the key enabler for commercial applications of the technology because without BVLOS operations, there is no scale. Without scale, then predictions and hype about the billions of dollars that the technology might be worth are just that.
BVLOS drone operations are a technical and regulatory challenge and while changes to rules around the world are easing those regulatory challenges, companies like SKYTRAC are focused on solving the technical ones. The satcom company is committed to using satellite communications to enable BVLOS communications, real-time Command and Control (C2), video streaming, data transmission and more. All of this is possible thanks to their Iridium Certus connectivity services.
As the Director of Business Development, Jeff Sherwood takes this commitment very seriously. By enabling BVLOS operators in industries that range from oil & gas to search & rescue to cargo delivery, operators can fly their UAVs from anywhere in the world thanks to SKYTRAC BVLOS communication solutions. But what does it actually mean for these operators to do so? How simple is it for drone operators to get up and running with one of their BVLOS-enabling products? Sherwood answered these questions and many more.
Jeremiah Karpowicz: SKYTRAC’s initial challenge was to provide aviators with connectivity where none was previously available, so can you tell us a bit about how and when the company identified this need?
Jeff Sherwood: The company was founded in 1986 so we've been around for quite a long time. SKYTRAC was formed by aviation enthusiasts who saw the benefit of equipping aircraft with satellite-based tracking technology. As the technology has evolved we've similarly expanded our capabilities.
In the early 2000s, SKYTRAC began to harness the capabilities of Iridium’s global satellite network to deliver voice and data connectivity services to aircraft operating in a variety of different industries. Over the years, SKYTRAC built upon Iridium’s core technology to develop advanced avionics solutions that increased the safety, communications, and operational efficiency of flight operations around the world. That’s everything from secure voice and data communications between aircraft and air traffic control to monitoring aircraft engine performance to alerting operators of any potential issues. As the aviation industry strives to become safer and prevent disasters such as MH370 and AF447, SKYTRAC has responded by developing a Global Aeronautical Distress and Safety System (GADSS) that provides real-time tracking and alerting during all phases of flight.
So that's technology that can essentially ensure someone can know exactly what is happening with an aircraft at all times and in any situation, correct?
Yes, and that sort of tracking is still critical, perhaps more so than ever. MH370 was lost from ATC radar not long after it took off in 2014 and the search for that plane ended up being one of the most expensive in aviation history.
It underscores the challenges of industry adoption because for a very long time, airlines had been relatively slow to procure new technology or procedures into their operations. Generally, the airline industry evolves based on decisions by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the various aviation authorities, such as the FAA and EASA. After the deadly MH370 and AF447 disasters, ICAO and the global airline industry sought to develop a new set of standards and requirements to prevent these accidents from happening.
With that being said, different segments of the aviation industry began to adopt this type of technology at different times. , Helicopter operators flying offshore for the oil and gas industry, air medical services, and a variety of other commercial operations have been using this type of tracking for a long time, really ever since it became available. Those operators have benefited from our global connectivity services, especially since their unique operations are often in environments that do not always support the traditional methods of flight following and voice communications. Over the years, these connectivity services have evolved into taking the “big data” concept to the next level with aircraft and the safety of flight operations.
In what way?
It's all about being able to take distinct and different types of data from the aircraft and sending that data down to the ground. Everything from fuel levels, to engine performance to detecting if there's a problem with the system. That can all be instantly communicated to someone on the ground which can make a critical difference.
As an example, a helicopter could be in the middle of a flight and it may have a bearing that's going bad. We can detect that by collecting data from the sensor and then sending it down to the ground. With that identified, the maintenance crew knows that they need to go fix that bearing as soon as the aircraft lands.
That illustrates how our technology has evolved, but the industry itself has evolved as well. The satellite network itself was upgraded in 2018-2019, which saw all of the satellites in orbit replaced with brand new ones. The layout is essentially still the same but the major upgrade is increased bandwidth so we now have faster internet speeds and faster connectivity speeds. What that enables us to do is to increase the amount of data that is sent from the ground to the aircraft no matter where it is on the planet.
It's easy to see the power of that data and connectivity for manned aircraft, given the myriad of situations that can arise before, during and after a flight. But how does all of this apply to UAVs and the world of unmanned aircraft?
It applies directly because this connectivity has given us the ability to facilitate things like command and control for any type of unmanned or remotely piloted aircraft. This would not be relevant to someone flying a DJI drone around their yard or in a confined space, but it's incredibly important for anyone operating long-range, long-endurance commercial UAVs. And that's not just the large military drones but also the smaller commercial ones making deliveries or performing inspections at various locations around the world.
Today, we have the technology to fly drones long distance and easily beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS). Historically though, drones have always been controlled from a point-to-point line of sight radio link. That meant you were always limited because flying beyond line of sight meant you were flying beyond where you could control the drone, which is of course is a safety risk.
That's partly why we developed a product that gives operators that control. Once you equip your aircraft with our system, you can fly it from anywhere on Earth. It allows you to send commands to the aircraft from anywhere and simultaneously receive data back that tells you exactly what the aircraft is doing, no matter is the location of you or the aircraft. With the increased bandwidth available through Iridium’s new Certus services, we can also transmit high-definition video while simultaneously providing connectivity for C2 and other types of telemetry. So now you can not only be in total control of the aircraft but you can also see what it is seeing even if it is operating beyond line of sight.
That sort of control really does unlock the type of BVLOS operations that for so long have just been ideas or concepts. That changes what types of decisions can be made when it comes to deploying certain assets and aircraft, doesn't it?
Unmanned aviation will never replace manned aviation but it will make certain operations more efficient.
If you consider what it means to fly emergency medical supplies to a crew that's working out on an oil & gas rig in the case of an injury, you’re talking about a helicopter flight that could end up being a $50K expense for a two-hour trip. If a lower-cost, lower-risk UAV could fly those same supplies out there in the same amount of time or even faster, why wouldn't you do that?
It's the same with the various pipeline, surveillance and disaster applications. Instead of flying an airplane up and down a pipeline or using it to patrol the border or sending a helicopter to a potentially dangerous emergency situation, a drone can do everything you need for less cost without putting those pilots in harm’s way.
The technical capability of drones to operate in this manner has considerably increased over the past few years but enabling BVLOS operations can often be more of a regulatory challenge than a technical one. How have you been able to work with your clients to ensure their operations are legal?
Our aviation solutions are used by hundreds of customers in over 100 countries on 7 continents, so those regulatory challenges are ones we're well aware of and actively address with our clients.
There are many people within SKYTRAC and the ACR Group of companies that are actively involved with and even leading some of the committees working on the regulatory aspects of manned and unmanned aviation operations. One question we always get from customers and potential customers is around whether or not our product is going to meet a new standard - so that's something we always have our eyes on.
The reality is that regulations for certain types of unmanned flight operations are being developed and continuously updated as the unmanned industry evolves. We're actively making sure that anytime the rules and standards evolve our product evolves in the same direction. Compliance with the standards is always going to be our focus.
As an illustration of this commitment, I'm actually in the Middle East at this very moment supporting a new operator with a rapidly growing operation in an emerging aviation market. The rules and regulations around BVLOS drone operations that we've been talking about are quite strict but the governing bodies are quickly recognizing the value they can bring to their regions. In an effort to support this, we are demonstrating that we can maintain compliance and support safe operations while also enabling new types of operations that provide substantial benefit to our customers. We're seeing amazing traction for that on all sides.
You talked a little bit about the different types of data that are being captured and connected, so I wanted to see if you could talk through that a bit more in terms of the options and opportunities that are being enabled for operators and organizations on account of this data.
Being able to have global connectivity is a major component of our products but what’s essential is what it means to both collect and connect different types of information.
Going back to our history in manned aircraft avionics, our customers loved the connectivity we have enabled but they said they wanted to be able to expand that data connectivity to include digitizing crew paperwork in the cockpit to air-to-ground connectivity for medical equipment in the cabin. This capability would allow them to communicate critical medical data about a patient on a medical helicopter to a team on the ground, which is obviously something they wanted to enable.
From a flight data and systems monitoring standpoint, on the aircraft you have the flight computer, you have the control inputs and of course you have the engine data. In order to support all of that plus these additional pieces, we had to basically build a product that has a very comprehensive list of interfaces to collect data as well as the capacity to then manage, process and trigger actions based on that data. There’s much more to it on a technical level, but that gives you a brief sense of what went into how we created the artificial intelligence that defines our data system. All of that relates to the options and opportunities of this data because it allows us to monitor abnormalities or problems on the aircraft.
What about the additional opportunities related to UAVs that are made available to operators as part of this ecosystem?
For UAVs specifically, we need to be able to interface with various camera systems, flight controls, autopilots and other systems or payloads on the aircraft. One of our customers, Platform Aerospace, just flew a mission in Alaska in the Arctic with their ultra-long range UAV. That UAV actually broke the world record for the longest endurance flight without refueling, as it flew for eight and a half days.
They used our connectivity services for BVLOS command and control but they also had the UAV equipped with scientific sensors for monitoring and detecting ice levels in the Arctic related to global warming. So in addition to providing that command control, our system also collected scientific telemetry data and sent that back to the ground in real-time.
Any other use cases or applications that are relevant to mention to provide a better context around what the opportunities of your technology can look like?
Back in August, FuVeX announced that our technology has allowed them to become one of the first UAV operators to conduct BVLOS flight operations for power line inspections in Spain.
We also have a customer in Norway that operates their UAVs for offshore maritime search, rescue and surveillance.
Harvard University operates high-altitude research balloons, which basically fly to the edge of space to collect scientific data and our products enable the critical connectivity for C2 and telemetry transmission at those altitudes. That's just a sense of the wide range of applications that we support on the commercial side.
Those applications are supported by the Iridium satellite network that enables broadband and midband bandwidth throughput for operationally efficient satellite communications. What does it mean for UAV operators and OEMs to utilize this network?
There are some significant advantages of Iridium over other satellite constellations, specifically with regards to the latency, coverage, and the size, weight, and power (SWaP) of the connectivity equipment
The latency of a satellite connection largely depends on the distance of the satellites in orbit. So, if you send a command to the UAV, the time it takes for the aircraft to respond will depend on the time it takes for that command to make a round-trip to the satellites. A high latency connection can result in a critical delay in aircraft action which introduces a significant amount of risk during certain phases of flight. That’s why Iridium’s low-latency, global line of sight solutions are ideal for secure and responsive command and control of unmanned aircraft. The higher data rates are just another benefit offered by our Iridium Certus solutions.
To many people, 352 kilobits per second sounds slow when comparing it to things like a fiber internet connection. It wouldn't be the sort of thing you could utilize at home to stream a TV show, but for these types of drone applications, with the way that we manage data, we can send full motion, high-definition video with those data rates. Most people don't realize that our system can host video compression and other software applications that can allow you to have domain control but also stream very high-resolution video.
What about operationally? How difficult is it for a user to literally plug into this network?
We recognize that the entire UAV industry is trying to make this push towards BVLOS flights but the vast majority of them are trying to develop very complex ways of doing it. They’re using cell towers, 5G connectivity or point to point radios, and it's all kind of pieced together. The reality is that it's very unreliable to use those methods.
Let's just take 5G. Everyone wants to use 5G, but 5G is only good up to 1,500 feet up in the air. If you need to go higher than that you will need something else. And we have a relatively small box that can give someone global connectivity at any altitude without any reliance on ground infrastructure. Our customers have taken delivery of our products and begun revenue-generating BVLOS flights less than a month later. That’s how easy it is to integrate. It's not a multi-month, multi-year integration process. It’s basically plug-and-play.
BVLOS operations are ultimately about BVLOS communications, so what do you say about the communications that you're enabling with everyone else in the airspace?
If you’re flying a UAV in an area where manned aircraft are operating you also need to be able to coordinate with those aircraft and with ATC. But if you’re far away from the UAV, how can you talk to an ATC tower that’s 1,000 miles away? Our system can also relay that voice communication between the ground control station, UAV, and air traffic control. It's an enabler for expanding operations but also adding a layer of resilient safety communications for their operations.
As I mentioned in my intro, I can't overstate how much of a talking point BVLOS operations have been in the drone industry over the past few years but the potential this kind of solution has at scale is truly exciting. What advice would you have for anyone that's thinking about turning these possibilities into reality? How do you support customers that are trying to actively work through these possibilities with your products?
We're very keen on being able to provide an overview of our solutions for anyone that has a fit for them in terms of their current or future operation. We're very open to doing on-site demonstrations to help someone visualize how it's going to work with their UAV. We also provide a ton of support and feedback around how these products need to be integrated, so it's really not, "here's your product, good luck," from us.
That said, any discussion that we have with someone looking to leverage our solutions to enable their BVLOS communications capability is really a two-way conversation because at the end of the day, they are the UAV experts and we are the satcom connectivity experts. We live and breathe satcom and intelligent connectivity. That's ultimately what we're here to provide and we have the products and expertise to do so across the entire unmanned industry.