Botlink app provides UAS operators with safe navigation

By Patrick C. Miller | January 28, 2015

Incidents of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) flying where they’re not supposed to have become all too common, and they’re what led Shawn Muehler to create Botlink, a program for UAV operators that’s expected to go commercial in March.

“At the heart of all our platforms is the safety net,” Muehler said. “We believe that anybody flying should have a safety net feature. We’re the only platform that has this feature built in as its foundation.”

In its most basic form, Botlink is a free app that any unmanned aerial systems (UAS) operator can install on a smartphone to show where their UAV is in relation to air traffic. It can also show the type of airspace in which the UAV is being operated, such as controlled airspace around an airport or prohibited airspace around the White House in Washington, D.C.

When news of a small UAV crashing on the White House lawn hit the major networks on Tuesday, Muehler immediately recognized that it was yet another example of the need for Botlink.

“This is what it was made to do,” he explained. “Our software was specifically made for this type of incident. The operator was flying in prohibited airspace. He would have had warnings pop up saying, ‘Hey, you can’t fly in there.’”

Although reports indicate the pilot might have lost control of the UAV, Muehler said that if the operator would have had Botlink, he might have been able to send the aircraft to a safer location with a simple tap on the screen of his smartphone. That’s a function of the program’s safety net feature.

Muehler, CEO of the company based in Fargo, North Dakota, said that in all three versions of Botlink, safe UAV operation is at the core of the software platform. The problem, according to the former U.S. Air Force pilot, is that most people flying UAVs don’t understand the national airspace.

“It’s the hobbyists and enthusiasts who are taking off just to have some fun,” Muehler said. “Of course, when they’re flying in the approach path to an airport, that’s where the issues happen. A lot of them don’t know how airspace works, and they don’t know how air traffic control systems work.”

In other words, with Botlink, UAS operators who want to fly safely and understand the airspace in which they’re operating have no excuse for not knowing. The program not only tells them if they’re flying in controlled airspace and creates situational awareness by showing them where other aircraft are in relation to their UAVs, but it also tells them how to contact the nearest FAA control center should the need arise.

“On top of that, we put in all the regulations—400 feet and the regulations that pertain to UAV flying or that are specific to manned aircraft, but correlate to UAV flying,” Muehler said. “Our first goal was to build a safety platform for people to go flying and still have fun, but be legal, to know what they’re doing.”

The free, smartphone version of Botlink also includes social media features that enable UAV pilots to communicate and collaborate with each other.

“You can go out there, have fun, be social and be an active participant in the airspace,” Muehler said.

A “prosumer” version of Botlink—available for a monthly fee—provides cellular connectivity that enables a UAS operator to download data collected by the aircraft to a cloud server and then distribute it via the Internet. Muehler believes it will be an attractive option after the FAA opens the national airspace to commercial UAS operations.

“What you’re getting is an actual commercially viable product to where now you can make money flying a drone,” he said. “Not just have fun, but make money flying it. You can store that data and distribute it to your customers—whatever you want to do.”

The commercial version of Botlink is intended for UAS businesses operating a fleet of UAVs. It enables one person to see all the UAVs in the field, track their progress, monitor vital functions such as data collection, make flight plan changes and plan missions.

“The person back at the office can coordinate everything with air traffic control and be the dispatcher,” Muehler said. “He knows all the regulations and where the drones are at. He can coordinate everything with everybody around him. All the pilot has to worry about is taking the drone out, flying it and completing the mission.”

One of the most significant advantages of Botlink’s commercial version is its ability to take the load of mission planning, preparation and completion off the pilot.

“As a pilot is flying a mission, the dispatcher can be talking to the customer in the next location and building that person’s mission,” Muehler explained. “As soon as the pilot’s done, he puts the drone in the car and goes to the next location.”

 As Muehler envisions it, Botlink could be the solution that enables the FAA to safely monitor and control UAS activity.

“Don’t change the airspace for drones. Keep it the way it is,” he said. “What we can do is have a platform like Botlink built into the current system where, physically, nothing changes. But in the background, there’s an Internet connection platform to air traffic control to see where all the drones are.”


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