4.2. Autonomous flight capabilities

Just as there are self-driving cars there are planes that can fly themselves. Or they could, if it were legal. While some functionality which relies on autonomous flight capabilities is useful and can improve overall system safety (e.g. by bringing the aircraft back to base in a loss-of-communication situation), for now the law still requires a pilot in command to control all phases of drone flights unless explicitly approved otherwise.

Refer to the section on visible line of sight vs beyond visible line of sight for additional background.

Refer to the section on a single pilot operating multiple drones for related information.

For managers overseeing drone operations, autonomous flight capabilities are a challenge, since they technically enable pilots to perform operations which look reasonable and safe but which are against the law.


  1. Misconfigurations of autopilots lead to unintended outcomes.
  2. Fines and disruptions of operations due to illegal flight operations.

Audit Steps

  1. Understand the advantages of autonomous flight capabilities and their safety implications.
  2. Understand the autonomous flight capabilities of the various drone types used.
  3. Understand the legal restrictions on beyond visible line of sight (BVLOS) flight.
  4. Understand the legal restrictions on one pilot controlling more than one drone.
  5. Understand the system used to program waypoints and other flight parameters and how the correctness of data entry is ensured.
  6. Understand that first-person view goggles and live video streams are no legal substitute for a visible line of sight.
  7. Interview pilots about their compliance with visible line of sight rules.
  8. Interview pilots about their compliance with the restrictions to fly only one drone at any time.
  9. Review mission logs and validate compliance with visible line of sight rules and restrictions for one pilot to fly multiple drones simultaneously.
  10. Review the usage of geo-fencing technology to improve safety of flight operations.
  11. Interview pilots to assess if safer drone technology would be available and is so, why it is not being used.
  12. Assess the reasonableness of keeping drones without autonomous flight functions in the fleet.


drone audit program index