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UAV use cases and challenges ahead

UAV use cases and challenges ahead

Note: Farm Industry News is a media sponsor of the 2015 Commercial UAV Expo.

As you know, UAVs offer an easy way to keep an eye on extensive assets. They're useful for farmers gathering data on their fields, but they've also helped other industries that operate mostly in rural areas. Oil & gas companies, for instance, are using UAVs to inspect and monitor the pipelines and facilities that they use to transport oil and gas over long distances. 

While adapting UAV technology, these companies have had some successes (and run into a few challenges) that may be familiar to you.

Use Cases

During the construction process, when pipes are being laid in open trenches, a company can fly the lines with a UAV and use that data to generate an accurate map. Once the pipes are under ground out of view, the map will act as a reference to their exact location. The use of such a map should be obvious.

Companies are finding UAVs extremely helpful for environmental monitoring and response, too. The little aircraft offer a fast way to understand the extent of a spill from a pipeline. A simple UAV flight is a great way to answer questions like, What's the terrain? Will the oil drain into a nearby or adjacent body of water? Is it a lot of oil? How quickly do we need to move?

UAVs can also help these companies to perform regular monitoring of these pipelines, like checking for the required few hundred feet of right away on either side. A UAV pays itself off when it helps a company find possible problems before they become actual problems. It might help a company spot a farmer accidentally digging for a new pond and getting too close to a buried pipe in what seems to be a totally clear area.

Challenges ahead

However exciting these uses may be, all industries still have a few challenges to overcome before UAV use becomes more widespread. 

One issue is regulation. Any entity using a UAV for commercial purposes needs to attain a special exemption from the FAA, at least until the FAA issues their finalized rules for commercial UAV use. However, we don't know exactly when that day will come.

The FAA has put out a proposal for rules, though, and like the 333 exemptions they grant, the proposed rules restrict commercial UAV operation to line of sight. That means if you're operating a UAV to check your pipeline, or a field on your farm, it has to remain within your visual line of sight at all times.

It's enough to make a rural industry question using UAVs at all--What's the point of using a UAV to survey an extensive plot of space if you can't fly it farther than you can already see? The good news is that the FAA seems to realize this shortcoming in their proposed rules. 

They've begun working with a few leading companies as part of their Pathfinder project to create a better framework for commercial UAV use. Most interesting to us is that they've teamed with PrecisionHawk to test the UAV company's Low-Altitude Tracking & Avoidance System (LATAS), which acts as a tracking system for UAVs and helps them to avoid hitting objects during flight. 

The LATAS will enable the FAA to test beyond visual line of sight flying in low-risk, 'non-populated' areas. To reiterate, this means the FAA is testing the use of UAVs for work like pipeline and farmland monitoring. They've got rural industries in mind and the future is looking pretty good.

Don't miss out: Come back to for our August feature on drones in agriculture.

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