Phoenix Air Unmanned (PAU), an aerial service provider specializing in operating remotely piloted aircraft for critical infrastructure inspection, received authorization to commercially operate the SwissDrones SDO 50 V2 beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) of the pilot in command throughout the United States. The exemption provided by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) allows for inspection and patrol flights over linear infrastructure under the same flight regulations as traditional-manned aviation. This opens millions of miles of critical U.S. linear infrastructure to safer, more efficient and higher-quality data capture capabilities than conventional inspection methods.
The SwissDrones 191-lb maximum weight enables a sensor capacity of 30 lbs and flight endurance of over two hours--enabling multipurpose inspection capabilities. Previous approvals limited UAS to below 55 lbs, which limited sensors and flight range. PAU will fly the aircraft for high-resolution imaging, LiDAR data acquisition, thermal imaging, corona detection and other sensors as needed. Depending on the sensor package and operating area, inspection flights could extend beyond 60 miles. With the capability to collect a combination of datasets over long distances, PAU can perform multiple inspections efficiently in a single flight.
“This groundbreaking authorization allows us to conduct inspections and patrol for any utility in the country. The SwissDrones SDO 50 V2 offers a variety of sensor packages and the endurance capabilities to inspect powerlines efficiently”, says Will Lovett, managing director of Phoenix Air Unmanned. “We are committed to being stewards of the airspace and are thrilled the FAA recognizes our robust safety assurance and professionalism.”
In the FAA’s words from this exemption: “UAS have been used for aerial surveillance of linear infrastructure for many years. They help provide inspection for the oil and gas pipelines, and railways as well as electricity lines. These inspections help those industries catch potential problems before they can affect the safety and reliability of the oil, gas, goods, and electric power. UAS offer a quieter, cleaner, cheaper option to manned aircraft.”
From 2017 to 2023, PAU completed 13,500 miles of transmission line inspection under FAA Part 107 waivers authorizing beyond visual line of sight inspections with aircraft under 55 lbs. The 191-lb SwissDrones expands upon the proven inspection flight profile and offers nearly 10 times the endurance and three times the lift capacity.
“This authorization is not our entry into the utility power line inspection space, but instead the next step in scaling our aerial inspection services.”, states William Wheeler, PAU’s director of operations. “We are very proud of the volume of miles inspected to date with smaller aircraft and have built a robust concept of operations that is the framework for our SwissDrones exemption. The addition of this aircraft and this FAA exemption will further enhance our capabilities and provide the most efficient scalable inspection services.”
The use of technology, as well as operational mitigations, were crucial to ensure airspace surveillance, command and control, and allow for safe scaled operations with minimal crew. This complex, multi-layered approach took a team. Industry partners included Kongsberg Geospatial, Capital Sciences, L3Harris, uAvionix, and Echodyne providing key hardware and software to build the safety case. Data collected from these operations will inform the FAA’s ongoing policy and rulemaking activities.