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Israeli drone kept tabs on spread of fire in Washington state

Craft developed by Israeli startup Percepto was operated by a unit of Verizon; US Federal Aviation Administration allowed vehicle to fly beyond line of sight for mission

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

The drone developed by Percepto was operated by Skyward, a subsidiary of Verizon (Courtesy)
The drone developed by Percepto was operated by Skyward, a subsidiary of Verizon (Courtesy)

A drone developed by Israel’s Percepto, a maker of unmanned aerial vehicles, helped telecom conglomerate Verizon inspect critical communications infrastructure that could have been destroyed by fire, in the northwestern US state of Washington, ensuring the potentially life-saving communications capability of rescue workers who could not access the area in person.

The Big Hollow Fire in Washington state burned more than 24,000 acres and resulted in mandatory evacuation orders in September. Concerned that fire, heat, water or smoke damage could potentially interrupt critical rescue and firefighting communications, the company needed to urgently assess the integrity of its equipment and facility.

To access the remote facility with one of its Percepto autonomous drones, Verizon’s drone subsidiary, Skyward, attained a special “beyond visual line of sight” (BVLOS) waiver from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) – allowing them to operate the Sparrow without an onsite pilot or on-ground visual observer.

The waiver enabled Skyward pilots to fly the drone missions from their homes -– enabling 24/7 operations and no pilot or observer on site. Getting the waiver represented “a regulatory milestone for autonomous drones for emergency response,” the statement said.

The site itself was just blocks away from an evacuation zone, and the air quality was unsafe for humans, rendering manual inspections of communications infrastructure impossible.

The flight operations team included an operations manager observing from Alaska, 1,600 miles from site; the director of aviation development centers, 25 miles from the site; a remote pilot 23 miles from the site; and a remote navigator 18 miles from the site, the company said in a statement.

The operators instructed the vehicle where to go and at what altitude to fly, and the drone provided real-time photos and videos that allowed rescue workers to monitor the situation and predict the spread and direction of the fire.

Percepto’s drone is equipped with the ability to photograph even in poor visibility and dark conditions, the company said in a statement. The operating system is based on artificial intelligence and knows how to analyze images and identify people in the arena, or high temperatures.

Ariel Avitan, VP of Percepto, said that permission to operate the drone beyond the visual line of sight was obtained after test flights that lasted about a year. This is a first step in turning drones into life savers, when used in difficult conditions of disasters, weather damage or security incidents, he said.

Percepto, founded by Dor Abuhasira, Sagi Blonder, Raviv Raz and Ariel Avitan, has a development center in Israel’s Modiin and offices in the US and Australia. It employs 75 workers. The firm has raised $16 million to date from investors, according to the database of Start-Up Nation Central.

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