Insitu conducts historic beyond-line-of-sight flights for BNSF

By Patrick C. Miller | November 12, 2015

The first commercial beyond-visual-line-of-sight operation with an unmanned aerial system (UAS) in the contiguous 48 states occurred in New Mexico Oct. 25 when an Insitu Inc. ScanEagle flew over a section of BNSF Railway line.  

Under the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Project Pathfinder—a program established last May to assist in UAS integration and commercialization—a week of test flights occurred in east central New Mexico along a 132-mile section of BNSF railway line.

On the first day of operations, the ScanEagle conducted a 64-mile inspection to provide real-time video. ScanEagle—which has also been used for U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan—is capable of flying for up to 24 hours at 92 miles per hour.

“Our systems have been flying globally for more than a decade, and these operations are a positive opportunity to further inform the conversation surrounding the safe integration of unmanned aircraft into the national airspace,” said Ryan Hartman, Insitu president and CEO.

Charlton Evans, Insitu’s program manager for commercial and civil operations, said BNSF chose to work with Insitu—a subsidiary of the Boeing Co.—because it has an FAA-issued type certificate for the ScanEagle, which enabled its use for commercial operations.

“The ScanEagle is also a long-endurance platform,” he added. “When it comes to linear infrastructure, we were a natural fit. BNSF has 32,500 miles of track that they want to have covered.”

Currently, BNSF monitors tracks with ground-mounted, vehicle mounted and handheld sensors. Evans said the ScanEagle enables BNSF to spot problems such as warped track, washouts, major erosion or bridge outages.

“This is a supplemental method of seeing things in a more real-time way,” Evan said. “While all those other sensor methods are able to give them a whole ton of data, there’s really nothing like seeing the track just before the train gets there to know that the track is, in fact, there and healthy and ready for the next train.”

Greg Fox, BNSF executive vice president for operations, said, “The capabilities these aircraft have to gather additional intelligence that can then be fed in real-time to track inspectors on the ground will fundamentally enhance our program and the safety of the our railroad while helping to keep our people safe in harsh and extreme conditions.”

Evans said Insitu plans to test more advanced sensors and data analysis, as well as develop automated reporting to quickly alert BNSF to missing railroad ties and people, animals and objects on the tracks. 

“As we progress in sensor capability and data analysis capability, we’ll be able to give them far more detailed information,” he said. “Ultimately, that is what the product is—information that’s useful to them as the end user.”

That effort will be assisted through Insitu’s recent acquisition of 2d3 Sensing which serves as the company’s mission systems division.

“They did everything from 3D rendering to some highly detailed magnification of the video so we could pick things out that we wouldn’t be able to do otherwise,” Evans said.

Evans noted that BNSF representatives monitoring the tests were impressed by what they saw.

“As BNSF was standing over our shoulders watching the video, they were coming up with use cases for the system that they hadn’t thought of prior,” said. “And that’s just a natural extension of seeing the system at work.”

Evans said the flights occurred in east central New Mexico in an area where there is little civil aviation traffic, but significant military traffic from the Holloman and Cannon air force bases.

“We avoided the areas they were flying in and it worked out real well,” he explained.

In addition to coordinating the ScanEagle’s flights with the Air Force to avoid conflicts, observers were stationed at three airports along the flight path to report on potential air traffic. Otherwise, Evans said there were no ground observers or chase aircraft to monitor the ScanEagle’s flight path.

According to Evans, the test flights for BNSF were conducted using a risk-based approach approved by the FAA as opposed to a strict compliance with regulations.

“This is a great example of how the FAA used the mitigations that we presented and the safety cases we presented to permit a very limited, restricted operation that was deemed safe because of the scope of the operation,” he said. “That’s the risk-based approach that they’re trying to adopt.”

Insitu developed a communications plan based on its previous experience of flying the ScanEagle for oil and gas industry operations in Alaska.

“It involved a whole lot of community outreach and industry outreach to the aviation elements in New Mexico,” he explained. “Almost everyone was aware of what we were doing and could avoid the area when we were active.”

The FAA created Project Pathfinder to work with industry in the areas of news gathering (CNN), precision agriculture (PrecisionHawk) and beyond-line-of-sight infrastructure inspections (BNSF). In October, the FAA added CACI International Inc. as a program participant to evaluate how the company’s technology can help detect UAS near airports.

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