The first coronavirus related waiver for the BVLOS drone flight was granted by the FAA to allow an oil and gas company in Houston to use drones instead of humans to inspect vital facilities while their employees remain in lockdown.
The waiver allows drone operators to fly the drones beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS). This usually is not permitted by the FAA. Airobotics, a US-Israeli startup, make the unmanned aircraft that will be used in these inspections.
Waivers are commonly used within the commercial Drone Industry, but this is the first time, according to the Financial Times, that a waiver was explicitly related to the Coronavirus pandemic. The news outlet also reports that drone use for aerial surveillance and contactless deliveries has dramatically increased during the Coronavirus outbreak.
According to a spokesperson for Airobotics, the request was “expedited because of the virus”, receiving FAA approval within 24 hours of an April 5 application. “That is amazing for the FAA. They understood the urgency,” the person added.
Airobotics receives FAA exemption for BVLOS drone flight during coronavirus lockdown
The waiver extends until June 30 or “the expiration of the federal, state, or local COVID-19 recommendations or requirements”.
Strict drone regulation in the United States has held back the utilization of commercial drones. However, many companies now hope that in light of this FAA exemption, a precedent has been set for more wide-scale drone applications.
A White House directive that, issued on March 17, calls all government agencies to relax regulations wherever they might ease the impact of COVID-19 on business. According to William Walsh, a partner at Cozen O’Connor this waiver represents the first time the FAA responded to the directive.
“The institutional culture of the FAA weighs against doing anything quickly,” he said. “I think what this crisis provides is an opportunity to change that paradigm.”
Other Drone Companies are also making plans to expand their drone operations in the hopes of gaining expedited regulatory approval.
Andreas Raptopoulos, chief executive of Matternet, a drone delivery company that has partnered with UPS to transport medical supplies between hospitals, said that he plans to fast-track the expansion in the United States from a handful of trials to servicing 10 hospitals by the end of the year if the FAA allows it.
“We continue to work with the FAA on everything they request from us to prove that this is safe,” he said. “We hope that we get authorization in time so it’s still relevant to be able to help with the crisis.”
Another drone company that is looking to expand its medical drone delivery services in the US is Zipline. They are currently working with the FAA to get the necessary approvals. to start making deliveries by drone.