One of America’s oldest communities may be testing the newest mainstay in U.S. drone operations.
The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma (CNO) and partner uAvionix, which provides avionics and services for the general aviation, defense, and unmanned aerial systems (UAS) industries, on Tuesday announced they had completed the nation’s first beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) drone flights using aviation-protected C-Band radio.
That’s a big deal, because the Federal Communications Commission has proposed dedicating C-Band radio frequencies exclusively to UAS, which could enable safer and reliable BVLOS flights. The FAA is still developing a final BVLOS rule, which is expected to open the floodgates for the industry by expanding the range and coverage area of operations.
The partners flew under recent FCC and FAA approvals, deploying uAvionix’s SkyLine software at the CNO Emerging Aviation Technologies Center—one of eight FAA-designated sites dedicated to BVLOS testing. UAvionix served as the command and control (C2) communications services provider (C2CSP), demonstrating its system for CNO, the FAA, and other industry leaders.
“[SkyLine] is the only C2CSP service designed to RTCA DO-377A and DO-362A standards for aviation and enables us to fly without chase vehicles, visual observers, or requiring other nearby aircraft to have their own detect and avoid sensors on board,” said Paul Beard, founder and chief technology officer of uAvionix. “It is truly a brilliant piece of engineering and operations by the uAvionix team.”
UAvionix and CNO have been partners since 2018, using the latter’s 44,500-acre test site to conduct various tests and demonstrations. The airfield poses similar conditions to those faced by businesses performing utility inspections or long-range cargo and medical deliveries.
The partners flew a drone called Super Volo using uAvionix’s C2CSP system, which included a muLTELink5060 airborne radio and four SkyLink5060 ground radios. SkyLine software continuously monitored links between the aircraft and ground radios, determining the most reliable C2 link.
The system also completed several make-before-break connections to switch between ground stations as needed. All the while, detect-and-avoid data from terrestrial sensors supplied the remote pilot in command with situational data.
“Together we have created a technical and operational system that is the foundation for others to safely operate UAS for a variety of safety critical, long range and higher altitude missions that will deliver economic and cultural value in our communities,” said James Grimley, executive director for the CNO Emerging Aviation Technologies Center.
The CNO and uAvionix have been testing a system that could soon become the standard for U.S. drone operations.
UAvionix’s SkyLine operates on SkyLink C-Band C2 airborne radios and SkyStation ground-based radios. These have a frequency between 5060 to 5091 megahertz (MHz), which lies within the range (5030 to 5091 MHz) the FCC has proposed dedicating exclusively to UAS.
Currently, most UAS operate on public spectrum frequencies such as 4G, industrial, scientific, and medical (ISM) bands, and even Wi-Fi. However, these networks are typically congested with other devices and have a limited range, which increases the risk of losing a C2 link during BVLOS flight.
“[C-band] vastly extends the range of operations from traditionally used frequencies because the FCC allows for higher power transmitters,” Christian Ramsey, managing director of uAvionix, told FLYING in June. “For example, we have tested our C-band radios to ranges exceeding 100 miles from a single ground transmitter. This is simply not possible with existing frequencies because of a significant cap on transmit power.”
Previously, the CNO test site relied on point-to-point radio transmissions between a ground operator and the aircraft. Now, the partners are able to create massive networks of coverage accessible to any UAS in range, while tasks such as fleet management, detect-and-avoid, and roaming between networks are automated.
Should the FCC move forward with its proposal, SkyLine would shield operations from outside interference and provide a stronger connection due to C-Band’s exclusivity. That will be particularly important for BVLOS operations, many of which currently rely on visual observers or chase aircraft to keep an eye on the drone.
UAvionix billed the system as a “significant advancement” for businesses looking to scale up commercial UAS operations in industries such as medical and package delivery, linear utility inspection, and emergency management. With the help of C-Band radios, firms such as Amazon Prime Air or Alphabet’s Wing could theoretically double, triple, or even quadruple their delivery zones.
Already, the FCC has received and replied to public comments on its proposed rule. Barring any unforeseen delays, a final decision is likely to arrive in the coming months.
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