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Echodyne plays a role in a pioneering drone test

Alaska drone flight
A Skyfront Perimeter drone takes off from the Alyeska trans-Alaska pipeline right of way near Fox for a milestone flight beyond the operator’s visual line of sight. The drone flew 3.87 miles along the pipeline corridor. (University of Alaska Photo / Sean Tevebaugh)

A public-private consortium led by the University of Alaska has conducted the first-ever federally authorized test flight of a drone beyond the operator’s line of sight without on-the-ground observers keeping watch – with Echodyne, the radar venture that’s backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and headquartered in Kirkland, Wash., playing a supporting role.

Autonomous flight beyond visual line of sight will be key to the kinds of drone delivery operations envisioned by Amazon, Walmart and other retailers.

During the July 31 flight, a Skyfront Perimeter multirotor drone inspected a 3.87-mile stretch of Trans-Alaska Pipeline infrastructure as part of the University of Alaska’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program, one of 10 such programs that won approval from the Federal Aviation Administration last year.

The big thing about this flight is that the drone made use of Iris Automation’s Casia onboard detect-and-avoid system, paired up with Echodyne’s ground-based MESA airspace management radar system, without having a human on the route.

Current FAA regulations limit drone flights to the operator’s visual line of sight. Pilot projects have been experimenting with technologies that can ensure safe operations beyond the visual line of sight, known as BVLOS. But until now, the FAA’s waivers still required a ground-based observer to look out for non-cooperative aircraft coming into the test area.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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