In October, the FAA took a major stride towards letting increasingly smart drones fly themselves, letting Skydio’s self-flying drones inspect any bridge in North Carolina for four years, as long as humans first verified those bridges were clear.
Now, the US airspace regulator is taking an even bigger step: American Robotics says it’s become the first company allowed to operate drones without needing a human pilot or an observer anywhere near the aircraft.
It’s not quite as big a deal as you’d expect from the company’s press release or The Wall Street Journal’s headline “FAA Approves First Fully Automated Commercial Drone Flights,” because humans still need to be part of the equation: FAA documents show that American Robotics will still need to assign a human to each and every flight, who’ll run through a safety checklist before takeoff and inspect the aircraft with remote tools. They’re not fully automated yet.
But after that, the company’s drone-in-a-box Scout will take over and fly the mission — and automatically halt if needed. The Scout’s box includes an acoustic detection system that lets the drone sense and avoid other aircraft; the base station can spot an incoming aircraft over two miles away and automatically force the drone to descend, according to the company.
The ScoutBase. Photo by American Robotics
The FAA’s also only approving this waiver for a handful of specific locations in Kansas, Massachusetts and Nevada that are owned by the company or its customers, so it’s not like they’ll be flying over people unawares, either.
As you can see in the company’s video for the Scout system, it’s targeting this tech at companies that want push-button aerial inspections of their own property — not exactly drone deliveries. For that, the FAA has a separate kind of certification. But the FAA does seem interested in what it can learn from letting American Robotics fly without humans physically nearby, as it explains in its justification for the waiver:
American Robotics’ proposed operations will provide the FAA with critical data for use in evaluating BVLOS operations from offsite locations. Once adopted on a wider scale, such a scheme could lend efficiencies to many of the industries that fuel our economy such as agriculture, transportation, mining, technology, and non-durable manufacturing.
American Robotics previously had a beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) waiver from the FAA, but that one (PDF) required its pilots to physically be at a location for the pre-flight inspections.