In a significant step for the drone industry, the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has authorised a trial for routine Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) operations.

The authorisation enables West Sussex based drone developer sees.ai to fly BVLOS at three sites without needing to pre-authorise each flight. Drones are currently banned from flying beyond the line of sight of their pilots under almost all circumstances, meaning it has been difficult to roll out the technology at scale on tasks including inspecting critical infrastructure to flying deliveries in urban areas.

John McKenna, CEO at sees.ai says its technical approach mirrors that of autonomous car developers, in that by putting highly automated machines to work at scale under remote human supervision, it gathers data and experience to safely iterate towards full autonomy.

The new authorisation allows BVLOS flights at under 150ft (46m) and initially requires an observer to remain in visual contact with the aircraft and able to communicate with the remote pilot if necessary. By testing the concept in industrial environments for inspection, monitoring and maintenance purposes, sees.ai aims to prove the safety of its system within this context, before extending to more challenging situations.

Data gathered from these test flights will be used to evaluate whether the risk and hazard assessments can be used to cover generic risks beyond the three trial sites.

McKenna commented, “We are accelerating towards a future where drones fly autonomously at scale – high up alongside manned aviation and low down inside our industrial sites, suburbs and cities. Securing this UK-first permission is a major step on this journey which will deliver big benefits to society across public health & safety, efficiency and environmental impact.”

This authorisation was delivered under guidance from the CAA’s Innovation Sandbox, set up in 2019. This offers a safe and collaborative environment within which innovators can develop and test new aviation solutions. Companies within the Sandbox work alongside the Civil Aviation Authority’s innovation team to understand how their innovative solutions can address the risks and unknows in terms of safety, security and consumer protection. Bridging the gap between regulator and innovator is a radical shift from the traditional approach to regulation, says David Tait, Head of Innovation at the UK Civil Aviation Authority.