Level of Autonomy in Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) Drones

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also referred to as drones, have undergone dynamic technological developments over the last few decades. These developments include progress in areas such as enhanced operating range and capabilities such as endurance, payload carrying capacity, etc., thereby proliferating usage of drones in the commercial sector. The initial years of the technology required remote pilots to keep drones within direct eye contact for safety reasons.

Technologies Enabling BVLOS Drone Flights

The development of autonomous BVLOS drones requires advanced technologies to increase reliability while operating in civilian airspace. This has led many companies to work out automation solutions that allow drones to function safely and independently with restricted or no human intervention. Accordingly, drones have been divided into five levels of automation, with every level having a specific application in the industry.

Levels of Autonomy in Drones

  • Level 0: It is also known as the no autonomy level, and 100% input is being given by the drone pilot. The drone system here only offers altitude adjustment.
  • Level 1: This is also known as the pilot assist level. Where the pilot is operating the drone system manually and provides 100% inputs to the drone. The system of the drone only offers a stable vertical flight position.
  • Level 2: This level is also known as the partial autonomy level. At this level, the pilot flies and operates the existing system. In level 2, the system offers a stable horizontal and vertical position. Also, at this level, the system has the ability to sense and warn about the potential obstacles in its course. In addition, the system also estimates the orientation and the position of the drone.
  • Level 3: This is also known as the level of conditional autonomy, wherein the pilot does not fly the drone. The pilot is only responsible for setting the target destination for the drone that is ready to fly. Herein, the system operates the drone in limited conditions. In conditional autonomy, the drone system can sense only basic obstacles in its path and has the understanding to avoid them.
  • Level 4: The level 4 autonomy is categorized into level 4A, 4B, and 4C, and all these levels are known as high autonomy levels. At a high autonomy level, the pilot can set the area of interest in a drone that is not ready to fly at that moment. In addition, the drone can fly under limited conditions and can evaluate its own areas of interest during the flight. In response to sensing the obstacles, level 4 autonomy drones can both sense and navigate through the obstacles with ease. The point of difference between Level 4A, 4B, and 4C is that in 4A, the drone can scan and detect the environment with the help of onboard sensors. In level 4B, the drone not only identifies the obstacles but also reasons about them. Lastly, in level 4C, the drone can identify and reason about simple as well as high-level obstacles.
  • Level 5: Level 5 autonomy is the full autonomy level, and the drone can fly under all types of conditions. At this level, the drone has a full understanding of its environment and can sense and navigate easily across obstacles.

    Manufacturers are constantly upgrading drone architecture and operational systems by integrating advanced technologies. These technologies not only enhance the safety and reliability of the drones but also reduce operational costs and increase the overall effectiveness of the system. 
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