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FAA Announces Pathfinder Program to Test Beyond-Line-of-Sight Drone Use

Amid intense pressure to allow beyond-line-of-sight commercial drone operations, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced Wednesday the launch of a new program to test the commercial expansion of drone use in the United States.

“The unmanned aircraft industry is changing faster than any segment of the aviation industry,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said at a drone industry convention in Atlanta, Georgia. “So many bright minds are focused on advancing this technology.”

“Today, I’m pleased to announce a new project that will help the FAA harness some of this energy,” Huerta said. “We’re calling it the Pathfinder Program.”

Through the Pathfinder Program, the FAA will partner with three companies—CNN, BNSF Railroad, and PrecisionHawk—to conduct research and testing on how to safely expand unmanned aircraft operations in the US.

Cable television news network CNN will research how visual line-of-sight operations, which have been off-limits for commercial drones, might be used for newsgathering in urban areas.

PrecisionHawk, a manufacturer, will be surveying crops in rural areas using unmanned aircraft flying outside of the pilot’s direct vision while BNSF Railroad will explore the challenges of using drones to inspect their rail infrastructure beyond visual line-of-sight in isolated areas.

“We anticipate receiving valuable data from each of these trials that could result in FAA-approved operations in the next few years,” Huerta said. “They will also give insight into how unmanned aircraft can be used to transform the way certain industries do business – whether that means making sure trains run on time, checking on the health of crops, or reporting on a natural disaster.”

Earlier this year, Homeland Security Today reported the FAA finally proposed a framework of regulations that would allow routine use of certain small UAS in today’s aviation system.

Although the proposal would pave the way for widespread drone use byexpanding small UAS operations, it laid out a number of safety restrictions, including the controversial requirement limiting operation of drones only within the visual line-of-sight of the operator.

The restriction prompted a firestorm of criticism from commercial industries. For example, Amazon is working on a project called Prime Air, which seeks to deliver packages to customers via small UAS. The project would require beyond-light-of-sight use of drones.

“The FAA needs to begin and expeditiously complete the formal process to address the needs of our business, and ultimately our customers,” Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president for global policy, said in a statement. “We are committed to realizing our vision for Prime Air and are prepared to deploy where we have the regulatory support we need.”

However, the agency opened the proposal up for comments on whether the rules should permit operations beyond-line-of-sight, and if so, what the appropriate limits should be. Huerta said the FAA received more than 4,000 public comments on the proposal, and they are working to address them before finalizing the rule.

In the meantime, the FAA hopes to expand commercial drone use through the Pathfinder program. In addition, the FAA continues to allow commercial drone use on a case-by-case basis. Earlier this week the FAA approved a commercial-use waiver for a crop-dusting drone, Yamaha’s 207-pound (94 kilograms) RMAX drone, which can deliver and disperse tanks of fertilizer and pesticides across large swathes of land.

Furthermore, the FAA recently unveiled a new smartphone app called “B4UFLY” for drone hobbyists and modelers, which helps users identify whether it is safe and legal to fly an unmanned aircraft at a particular location.

“Integrating unmanned aircraft into our airspace is a big job, and it’s one the FAA is determined to get right,” Huerta said.

Homeland Security Todayhttp://www.hstoday.us
The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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