Charles River and Longfellow Bridge, in Boston Massachusetts

Proving the Safety Case to Expand Drone-Based Benefits

By Marlis McCollum

Drones can support a multitude of missions, but only if they have authorization to fly. With MITRE’s help, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation is getting the approvals they need to expand what their fleet of drones can do for the public good.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s (MassDOT) Aeronautics Division understands the power of drones. They already use their fleet to enhance a variety of operations, from inspecting the dome of the state capitol building to monitoring commuter rail lines for anything that could impede efficient operations.

Now they want to do more, and they’ve teamed up with MITRE, MIT Lincoln Laboratory, and the U.S. DOT Volpe Center to make that happen. The partnership recently yielded its first milestone.

“MassDOT wanted to fly their drones farther—beyond the pilot’s range of vision—so they could use the fleet to perform existing operations more efficiently and put drones on the job in new ways as well,” says Michael Guterres, Ph.D., who heads MITRE’s uncrewed aircraft system and advanced air mobility (UAS and AAM) partnerships and regional integration portfolio of programs. “Their goal is both to improve safety and positively affect Massachusetts residents’ quality of life.”

Achieving that goal meant getting new Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approvals for more advanced operations. And to do that, MassDOT had to prove the operations could be done safely.

That’s where MITRE came in.

MassDOT Taps MITRE’s Deep Bench of Expertise in the UAS Arena

“Given our longstanding support to the FAA and other government agencies, as well as our extensive experience in UAS integration, we understand the regulations governing UAS use and the technologies needed to implement advanced operations,” explains Jeff Breunig, who manages a MITRE work program dedicated to safely integrating UAS and other non-traditional aircraft into the nation’s airspace.

“We also know what’s needed to achieve success—including technology assessment and certification, requirements definition, testing and evaluation, and conducting the right safety risk analysis for the desired operations.”

Another reason MassDOT sought us out, Guterres says, is MITRE’s role as a trusted, strategic adviser. “We provide independent and unbiased advice on procurement efforts, selection of partners, and technology solutions that benefit the state and also support interoperability with nationally deployed enterprise systems.”

In that role, MITRE worked with MassDOT to develop an actionable roadmap to achieve their vision.

As we work with states on how to safely use drones, MITRE and the FAA learn best practices for supporting UAS operations nationwide.

Michael Guterres

New Authorizations Enable More Efficient Inspection of Rail Lines

The first “stop” on the roadmap relates to MassDOT’s support of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), which operates commuter trains connecting Boston to its suburbs.

MassDOT uses drones to create base maps and to survey vegetation along the MBTA rail lines, enhancing the efficiency of MBTA’s vegetation management efforts. Future efforts will include using drones to check for downed trees after storms and to document safety improvement made throughout the lines.

To cover the rail system more quickly, MassDOT sought permission to fly their drones beyond the pilot’s visual line of sight (BVLOS).

“MassDOT recently received FAA authorization to fly BVLOS on a particular section of MBTA track—the Fitchburg line—with certain stipulations,” Breunig says.

The answer, for now, is to utilize airspace observers at intervals along the rail line. The observers monitor the airspace for activity that might create risk.

“For instance, an observer may hear a low-flying helicopter approaching the airspace the drone will soon enter. So, he’ll notify the remote pilot, who can then descend the drone to a safe altitude,” Guterres says.

With the newly authorized use of BVLOS operations with airspace observers, drones can fly uninterrupted over longer distances than previously possible.

“Without these approvals, the UAS pilot would have to land the drone and relocate every mile or two to accomplish the same mission,” Breunig says. “This will contribute to a much more efficient flight operation.”

Establishing a Strong Foundation for Future UAS Operations

“The use of airspace observers is just a first step in a building-block process,” he adds. It’s a way to ensure safe operations while at the same time achieving learning that will support more advanced operations.

“In addition to proving that the technology works and the value of the drone’s sensor data to inform decision makers, MassDOT and the team are also maturing operational procedures—from the training of UAS pilots to the safety assurance procedures for a flight operation.” That work will be beneficial as new technological advances support longer-range BVLOS operations without airspace observers.

“There’s already work underway on technology that can be installed on drones or on the ground that would enable drones to detect and avoid obstacles or other aircraft,” Breunig notes.

Meanwhile, MassDOT has set their sights on FAA approvals covering the entire MBTA rail system. Down the road, MassDOT also plans to pursue approvals for other missions, such as port and airport monitoring and package delivery for offshore spots such as Martha’s Vineyard.

States’ UAS Integration Advancements Help Forward FAA Mission

As drone use becomes increasingly common, MITRE’s work with MassDOT is expected to have far-reaching effects.

“As we work with individual states to determine how to safely use drones to meet their unique needs, both we and the FAA learn best practices for supporting other UAS operations nationwide,” Guterres says. “These learnings can inform national policy and FAA rulemaking and help accelerate the maturation of the technology, ultimately increasing safety and benefiting citizens in multiple ways.”

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