CNBC Upstart 100

Drone company Iris Automation makes first-of-its-kind FAA-approved 'blind' drone flight

Key Points
  • The first FAA-approved long-distance drone flight using no ground-based radar or visual observer took place recently in Kansas.
  • The flight is a step toward making commercial drone flights routine across the U.S.
  • Iris Automation, which created the onboard drone collision-avoidance system, said routine flights may happen in a matter of months.
Iris Automation

Earlier this year in Alaska, two drones flew toward a manned vehicle as if they were playing a high-tech game of chicken. One of the drones was piloted by a human; the other was equipped with Iris Automation's Casia onboard collision-avoidance system. The goal: to not hit the manned vehicle. In the head-to-head matchup, the Iris Automation system won 95% of the time.

Those numbers gave the Federal Aviation Administration enough confidence in the tech company's system to allow it to make history, and a few weeks ago the history-making drone flight took place over Kansas.

Iris Automation, which was named to the 2019 CNBC Upstart 100 list on Tuesday, successfully completed the first FAA-approved drone flight taking place "beyond the visual line of sight" and using only onboard detect-and-avoid systems. In the past, the FAA would have required two things for a BVLOS drone flight: a manned observer and ground-based radar.

According to Kansas Department of Transportation director of aviation Bob Brock, the approach taken by Kansas is a big change from the way other states, as well as universities, have conducted drone tests, which he said can be expensive and limiting. Until now, most flights have included human observers and radar systems installed on the ground that can cost $50 million, which he described as "a tremendous amount of investment to make possible for a very small geographic area."

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The flight was a joint project under KDOT's Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program, involving Kansas State Polytechnic, utility company Evergy and Iris Automation. Using a fixed-wing drone, the team was able to fly BVLOS to inspect power lines for the utility.

The flight is a big step forward to making routine commercial drone flights a reality, said Alexander Harmsen, CEO of Iris Automation. Harmsen thinks we could see commercial drone flights using this approach within a matter of months.

"The 152 miles we did for this program were commercial operations, and Evergy got something out of that," Harmsen said, referring to the utility whose power lines were being inspected in the drone test. "We are going to keep doing those same operations. I would be surprised if it's not as early as Q1 or Q2 of 2020."

Iris Automation's Casia system allows "beyond the visual line of sight" drone flights using only onboard detect-and-avoid systems.
Iris Automation

In addition to monitoring infrastructure like the power lines that were inspected in Kansas, BVLOS flying can be used to help farmers get a better look at their crops from above and use that data to improve crop yields.

The Kansas test could have global implications.

"I was just in New Zealand speaking with their Civil Aviation Authority," Harmsen said. "I was in Canada talking to their Civil Aviation Authority. A lot of them look to the U.S. as the gold standard for this sort of thing. So getting this approval from Kansas is a big deal for the entire world."

Brock pointed to commercial drone operations in North Carolina as a reason for optimism about the future of commercial drone use.

"I think [commercial drone flights] is right around the corner," Brock said. "Commercial operations in North Carolina have been very successful, and I think it's just the beginning of doing a whole lot more activity like that."

Zipline, a CNBC Disruptor 50 company, is one of the drone start-ups involved in North Carolina tests approved by the FAA. Its focus is on delivery of medical supplies to hard-to-reach areas, such as the rural communities in North Carolina's mountainous regions.

Brock said the state's primary use of drones like those in the Iris Automation test will be for public safety, including disaster-relief support during extreme weather events. A total of 45 tornadoes touched down in Kansas during 2018.

"When we have a disaster from a tornado or flooding or things like that, it's critical to get resources overhead quickly in a way we really can't do affordably today," Brock said. "So drones will immediately provide value to actually saving lives."