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Cannon opens skies for first-ever base civilian drone work

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Stephen Marshall, unmanned aerial vehicle pilot contractor, prepares a drone for takeoff at Melrose, New Mexico, Aug. 17, 2018. The drone was one of the first examples of civilian drones being allowed to fly into military instillation air space. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Lane T. Plummer)

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Stephen Marshall, unmanned aerial vehicle pilot contractor, pauses while preparing a drone for launch at Melrose, New Mexico, Aug. 17, 2018. A team of two contractors helped launch a drone that was then ‘handed off’ to a centralized BNSF flight control center that enabled the aircraft to assess the condition of railroad tracks for hundreds of miles. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Lane T. Plummer)

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A civilian drone is cleaned before takeoff from Melrose, New Mexico, Aug. 17, 2018. The drone, operated from a central control facility, was used to survey hundreds of miles of railroad. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Lane T. Plummer)

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Brett Dokken and Stephen Marshall, unmanned aerial vehicle pilot contractors, prepare a civilian drone for takeoff at Melrose, New Mexico, Aug. 17, 2018. The drone was used to monitor railroads for BNSF Railway. Part of the path was over Cannon Air Force Base’s air space, which after coordination, was approved, making the drone the first ever civilian drone to be approved to fly over the base. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Lane T. Plummer)

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A civilian drone sits idling as it awaits takeoff at Melrose, New Mexico, Aug. 17, 2018. Using advanced sensors and analytic software, the aircraft was used to monitor BNSF Railway’s right of way (its legal right to pass along areas that belong to outside parties). (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Lane T. Plummer)

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Brett Dokken and Stephen Marshall, unmanned aerial vehicle pilot contractors, wait for communication from higher headquarters before launching a civilian drone at Melrose, New Mexico, Aug. 17, 2018. The two helped launch a drone used to monitor railroad tracks. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Lane T. Plummer)

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A civilian drone takes off at Melrose, New Mexico, Aug. 17, 2018. The drone was used by BNSF Railway to survey railroads, and worked with the Air Force to make it the first ever civilian drone to be authorized to fly into Cannon Air Force Base’s air space. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Lane T. Plummer)

CANNON AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --

Cannon Air Force Base opened up its air space for BNSF Railway to launch a supplemental inspection drone last Friday, Aug. 20, 2018, from Melrose, New Mexico.

 

The drone is being used to survey railways across the southwestern United States as part of a joint Federal Aviation Administration/BNSF rail and aviation safety research partnership. Part of the path it took meant flying over Cannon, which is the first time in Cannon’s history this has occurred.

 

“We had to make sure we could accomplish BNSF’s mission to improve railroad safety through our operations without impacting Cannon’s own responsibility to safety,” said Todd Graetz, BNSF Railway director of technology services

 

The drone launch took place on a cleared dirt patch near the railroad in Melrose. The process began in the early morning hours where drone pilots readied the area and aircraft for launch.

 

The launch was successful, and the event saw the first-ever civilian Beyond Visual Line of Sight Drone to enter Cannon air space with permission.

 

“Our work here will set a strong precedent for safe infrastructure inspection on or near military bases across the country,” Graetz said. “Cannon is definitely leading the way in this area.”

 

The new standard was set thanks to cooperation between the two organizations that helped create a positive and ambitious work environment.

 

“Everyone [at Cannon] has been a pleasure to work with on this program,” said Catherine Bramlett, Operations Manager, BNSF Railway Unmanned Aircraft System Program. “They have all been professional, respectful and understanding of the Federal Aviation Administration and BNSF’s needs, and willing to work with us to pursue our mutual goals in ways that work for both sides.”

 

This forward-thinking pursuit was aided by the Air Traffic Control tower Airmen who watch the skies over Cannon.

 

“They [BNSF] have been extremely flexible and receptive to our recommendations as to how to make these operations smooth and transparent to the Cannon flying community,” said Master Sgt. Monica Warren, 27th Special Operations Support Squadron air traffic control tower chief controller.

 

According to Warren, the wing’s policy hasn’t changed to allow for the use of either military-owned drones for work-related uses or privately-owned drones for recreational use.

 

Up in a tower or on the ground, Airmen at Cannon helped ensure that we are able to assist surrounding communities.

 

“There’s no way we could’ve reached the point we’re at today, ready to perform regular railroad track inspections across a military installation, without the help and commitment of our colleagues at the FAA, the Air Force and Cannon Air Force Base,” Graetz said.

 

BNSF are expected to continue monitoring their railroads through the month of August.