Percepto, the Israeli UAV company, is well-known for its ability to navigate through and around the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) byzantine regulations relating to drones. Last November, Percepto was the first US company to receive a nationwide exemption to conduct autonomous Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) operations at its infrastructure sites. So, this year’s flat denial by the FAA of Percepto’s latest exemption request should come as a surprise, right? Not really, company officials say.
In fact, that denial turns out to be a major turning point not only for Percepto but for the drone industry as a whole.
In seeking the exemption, the drone company made a fascinating maneuver. It demonstrated through its application request that it had already satisfied the FAA’s safety and flight risk concerns – by introducing state-of-the-art monitoring technology that mitigated the possibility of collisions with other aircraft or interference with surrounding populations.
Even while requesting the exemption, which are typically granted on a case-by-base basis, Percepto demonstrated that its pre-flight inspection process exceeded the usual Part 107 requirements. The company installed cameras on and around the base of the drone and produced high-resolution images to confirm safe deployment. Percepto also agreed to establish an ongoing dialogue with the FAA to address the agency’s questions, exceeding FAA expectations. Under the circumstances the FAA determined that Percepto didn’t actually need a special exemption and could simply proceed ahead with its expansive BVLOS fight plans.
By proceeding in this sub rosa fashion, Percepto not only achieved its goal but also set a precedent for other companies that have faced regulatory bottlenecks to pursue their advanced flight operations unencumbered. In effect, Percepto altered the current stringent regulatory regime governing BVLOS flights on behalf of the industry as a whole. Yet, in a formal sense, existing Part 107 guidelines remain intact, pending future FAA regulatory reform.
Percepto’s adroit maneuvering illustrates what nimble companies can achieve when they set their mind to it. The FAA is under growing pressure to grant more waivers and exemptions but has not completed the process of reviewing existing guidelines and approving new ones. Percepto’s clever bypass gave the agency a way to satisfy the growing BVLOS demands from drone companies without having to acknowledge the bureaucratic obstacles the agency continues to place in their way.
Neta Gliksman, Percepto VP of policy and government affairs, applauded the FAA’s decision. “Percepto is very grateful to the FAA staff for their engagement and consideration of our [Concept of Operations] and technical information to reach this groundbreaking result for Percepto and the broader UAS industry.”
Percepto’s breakthrough has not gone unnoticed. Other nations have begun opening up their BVLOS regimes to accommodate Percepto and other companies with advanced flight capabilities. For example, last year Transport Canada, that nation’s civil aviation authority, approved the use of Percepto drones for autonomous BVLOS power grid inspections. Previous gris inspections had been conducted with helicopters or field crews, which were time consuming and posed a physical risk to the inspectors. These cumbersome and cost-inefficient operations also tended to miss areas of inspection in remote inaccessible portions of the grid.
“Automated drone inspections enable faster and more frequent inspection at power stations and electrical grids in addition to other critical infrastructure at oil and gas facilities, mines, solar farms, and other heavy industrial environments,” Percepto’s Gliksman told Forbes magazine earlier this year. “Fully approved BVLOS flights improve operational efficiency in multiple ways – by enabling faster and more frequent inspections, as mentioned above, and enabling more people to become eligible infrastructure inspectors.”
Currently, Percepto is preparing to make autonomous inspections at a power grid in Arkansas, and at a solar plant in Texas. With FAA approval, the Texas inspection will allow Percepto drones to fly at an altitude of 200 feet – twice the altitude of any previously approved grid inspection. In addition, Percepto is pushing for FAA approval of its patented “drone-in-a-box” technology. The technology allows Percepto drones to launch and store themselves autonomously, further removing the need for remote piloting at any stage of their deployment.