The Next Big Thing for Commercial Drones

In July 25, 2017

There is no doubt that the use of drones is going to change the way we manage many activities in the forest industry. However, currently commercial deployment is being held back in most countries by the regulatory requirement for the drone pilot to keep the drone within line of sight at all times. This greatly limits operational efficiency and can add considerable cost. Operations Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) are going to change that.

The requirement for the pilot to keep the drone within visual line of sight ensures that the pilot can take action to avoid collisions with other aircraft – both manned and unmanned. The skies are going to get pretty crowded with aircraft as commercial and recreational use of drones expands. Before we see regulations that allow widespread use of drones for BVLOS flights systems will have to be developed that ensure adequate separation between drones as well as manned aircraft. Traffic management systems are coming.

It is going to take time to develop methods of monitoring, tracking and managing airspace to allow widespread BVLOS. In addition, training and certification systems will have to be put in place for pilots as well as certification for drones. However, prior to this there will be opportunities for the approval of BVLOS flights on a case-by-case basis. Australia has regulations that allow this and other countries will be following suit.

Once BVLOS can be utilized reliably for commercial flights the use of drones in forestry will expand dramatically. At present it can often be difficult to find sites suitable for launch and recovery of drones that also allows the pilot to see the drone throughout the entirety of its mission. This significantly limits the size of the area that can be flown for mapping missions without having to constantly relocate the pilot. This adds considerable cost and adds uncertainty for commercial operators that need to provide a quote for the work. Also, many sites that are ideal for examination by drone are too far away from the launch site to be acceptable for visual line of sight operations.

With systems in place that allow BVLOS operations I expect we will see drones commonly used for the following:

  • Mapping missions of large areas. With fixed wing drones that can stay airborne for long periods of time it will be unlikely that there will be a need for conventional aircraft to fly mapping missions.
  • Monitoring of harvest operations. At present I know some harvest managers that spend up to 40% of their time driving to monitor harvest operations. Deploying drones to regularly capture imagery of active harvest units would provide managers with excellent situational awareness to help them determine how to best utilize their time.
  • Surveillance of forests for wildfire detection. This is often accomplished with both manned aircraft and ground observers. Drones will accomplish this far more effectively with the deployment of multiple drones, which send live video to pilots and observers.
  • Monitoring of road networks. After winter storms roads and drainage systems can be quickly assessed to determine if maintenance is required.
  • Assessment of aquatic and terrestrial wildlife habitats. Regular monitoring of these forest values will facilitate effective management.

There are many excellent use cases for drone flights that are limited to visual line of site. However, when regulation facilitates BVLOS flights drone use within the forest industry will expand dramatically. Uses for the data gathered with them will be limited only by our creativity. Make sure you do up your seatbelt as I expect the rapid change will make for a wild ride for forest managers!

Brian Saunders
White Raven Innovations Limited
Cell: 250 802 6115
Skype: BrianSaunders.WRI
Twitter: @tabletEXgear