FAA Announces ‘Pathfinder’ Initiative to Improve Drone Operations

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

ATLANTA — The Federal Aviation Administration will work with three companies — CNN, PrecisionHawk and BNSF Railway — to test new drone operations in the national airspace, said the agency’s administrator May 6.

“We’re partnering with three leading U.S. companies who have committed extensive resources to perform research that will help us determine how we can expand safely unmanned aircraft operations here in the United States,” said Michael Huerta.

“CNN will be researching how visual line-of-sight operations might be used for news gathering in urban environments. PrecisionHawk, a manufacturer, will be surveying crops in rural areas using unmanned aircraft flying outside of the pilot’s direct vision,” he said. BSNF Railway “will explore the challenges of using these vehicles to inspect their rail infrastructure beyond visual-line-of-sight in isolated areas.”

Huerta unveiled the initiative — called Pathfinder — during a press conference at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International Conference.

The FAA anticipates that it will receive a plethora of information from the three companies. That will help lead the way for legal UAS operations in the United States, he said.

Earlier this year, the FAA released its much anticipated proposed small UAS rule. The proposal — which stipulated that UAS must fly within line-of-sight of the operator during the day and away from airports — was open to comment by the public through April. The agency received more than 4,000 comments and hopes to comb through them over the next year.

“The rulemaking by its very nature is deliberative, so we’re actively looking for other things that we could do — ways that we can expand the use of unmanned aircraft in the mean time,” he said.

That includes researching UAS at the six FAA test facilities around the country, granting Section 333 regulatory exemptions for approved commercial companies and now the Pathfinder program, Huerta said.

“What we’re trying to do is push the … [limits] of technology, push the edges of what we can allow working with partners who have specific uses that they want to be able to employ,” he said.

David Vigilante, senior vice president of the legal department at CNN, said it is the company’s hope to integrate drones in its coverage across the country.

“It’s our belief that really the only way that CNN wins, is if everybody wins,” he said. The company does not want to have a monopoly on using drones for newsgathering, but rather wants to have an assortment of independent journalists it can tap into.

All three companies reached out to the FAA, and Huerta encouraged others to do the same. The initiative is still in the beginning stages, and there is no timeframe for when it would conclude, he noted.

The three companies will enjoy faster approvals from the FAA, sometimes within hours, he added.

“Because we have a close relationship and because we know what they’re using and we’re able to develop a track record there, they can come to us” for a quicker response, he said.

The FAA also debuted a new app that can better educate new drone users about where it is legal to fly. Many new users are unaware of the proper rules and regulations, Huerta said.

“It’s a simple and easy to use app that answers a very basic safety question: ‘Is it safe and is it legal to my fly my unmanned aircraft based on where I am right now?’” Huerta said. “Long time members of the unmanned aircraft community may already know the answer to that question but someone who get their first unmanned aircraft as a gift under the Christmas tree probably does not”

That’s a knowledge gap that the FAA and industry must fill. The app will be able to tell a user if there are any aircraft restrictions or requirements in the area they want to fly.

The app — known as B4UFLY — will be released this summer to 1,000 beta testers using Apple devices. Testing will end after several months, after which it will be available to the public.

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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