AiRanger™ UAS with orange and white livery is in flight over a forest area.

Iridium and American Aerospace celebrate watershed moment for UAS


There seems to be a general consensus in industry that autonomous or highly automated flight operations will play a key role in commercial aviation by the 2040s. But in the here and now, uncrewed aerial systems (UAS) are supporting everything from surveillance and aerial photo and video services to mapping and safety inspections.

Now UAS has reached a watershed moment: American Aerospace Technologies Inc. (AATI), which specializes in remote sensing, machine learning and unmanned aviation, has been granted the first US FAA waiver for beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) commercial operations using its Iridium Communications-connected drones.

“This waiver,” which will enable American Aerospace to conduct UAS surveillance of critical infrastructure in California’s San Joaquin Valley on behalf of a new oil and gas customer, “may serve as a tipping point for wider adoption of safe and scalable UAS operations in the National Airspace System (NAS),” says Iridium.

The L-band Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite operator explains the solution thusly:

Enabled by Iridium’s truly global L-band satellite connectivity, AATI’s AiRanger [medium-altitude, long-endurance UAS] is supporting remote aerial surveillance for the energy corporation’s pipeline and production facilities. Iridium’s low-latency network is providing reliable and cost-effective BVLOS connectivity, including remote Command and Control (C2) and Detect and Avoid (DAA) capabilities.

Flying over a pipeline network, the large drones (over 200 lbs.) will send information via Iridium® satellites to quickly perform routine oil and gas pipeline inspections. Iridium partner Blue Sky Network customized the development and integration of its global, dual-mode SkyLink 7100 voice, data, and BVLOS terminal installed on the aircraft. The Iridium Connected™ Skylink 7100 enables continuous tracking and C2 capabilities for aviation and UAV operations.

BVLOS for UAS has been a hot topic for Iridium of late. Last year, the satellite operator published a whitepaper that addressed the challenges faced in enabling a safe, scalable, and efficient adoption of UAS in the NAS, including how to maintain safe separation between aircraft and what supportive COTS avionics are readily available today.

During last year’s Satellite 2023 conference and exhibition in Washington D.C., Iridium executive director of aviation John Peterson explained the work to RGN, stating:

We are really breaking new ground in autonomous flight with respect to ‘use what you’ve got’. So, we’ve been in aviation for a while and it feels like whenever someone talks about something needing to be autonomous, it’s like, ‘oh, so we need new spectrum, we need new networks, we need new technologies. We need new. We need new.’

And when you take a step back and you really think about autonomous, ‘it’s like, all right, well, I need tracking. Oh wait, we have that. That’s called ADS-B; we’ve got in and out, 1090 MHz transponders. And then we go, ‘well, we need Command and Control’, well we’ve got it. We’ve got all sorts of things for Command and Control. We’ve got LTE, we’ve got C-band, we’ve got 900 MHz and we’ve got L-band. And I said, ‘alright and so why do we all of a sudden need new, new, new just because we call it autonomous? Why can’t we just do it with what we have?’

And so, we went a little bit further. To be autonomous, you have to be beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS). We dug a little bit deeper under it and I said, ‘well, alright, so what’s the MEL [minimum equipment list] for BVLOS…? If I want to fly IFR [instrument flight rules], I need a MEL. If I want to fly oceanic, I need a MEL, and if I fly a Gulfstream, they have their version of the FAA part 91 MEL.

So, I went and looked and I said ‘alright, well what’s the MEL for BVLOS? There isn’t one. So, what’s the waiver for BVLOS, well, you have to pull up a Word document, perfectly blank. Write up your mission, write up every potential risk, write up every manner in which you would mitigate that potential risk. Submit it, someone will review it, and then they’ll either approve it or they won’t. Zero guidance.”

That was then, however. Now, through the work of American Aerospace, Iridium and its partners, and indeed cooperation from the FAA, a simplified MEL and a more standardized waiver process is presenting a path forward for monitored BVLOS UAS operations in the NAS.


This work spills over into the eVTOLs, said Peterson in 2023, but it also spills over into single pilot cargo operations, because they’re monitored flights, “because now you can set up a MEL and CONOPS [the Concept of Operations] around monitored flights… And then from there you can go from monitored flights to completely autonomous.”

“Everybody can invest in a MEL,” for these types of operations, noted Peterson. “If we just point the commercial people to what to focus on to make it safer and work better, we’ll have 100 solutions in 90 days.”

In a statement last week celebrating American Aerospace’s waiver from the FAA, Peterson said: “This certification shows innovation through the fusion of technology, partnership, and practical application.

“When aircraft manufacturers and communications providers get together, scalable business solutions can become a reality. Iridium and our partners AATI and Blue Sky Network are proud to lay the groundwork for scalable BVLOS operations and show what’s possible with reliable satellite communications.”

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Featured image: AiRanger™ UAS, Credit: American Aerospace Inc.