FAA, Industry Partners Announce 'Pathfinder' Drone Research

 - May 6, 2015, 4:58 PM
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta announces the Pathfinder Project at the Unmanned Systems conference in Atlanta. (Photo: Bill Carey)

The Federal Aviation Administration has entered into a “pathfinder” arrangement with industry partners to explore concepts for beyond visual line-of-sight (BVLOS) and other operations of small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) that exceed what the agency plans to allow in its coming small UAS regulation. Cable network CNN, BNSF Railway and drone manufacturer PrecisionHawk will participate in the trials.

“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,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta announced March 6 at the Unmanned Systems conference in Atlanta. “These companies reached out to the FAA to work with us.”

CNN will explore how operators can conduct drone flights within the pilot’s visual line of sight in urban areas for newsgathering. The pathfinder project is the network’s latest foray into drone research. Last June, CNN announced that it had entered into a joint research initiative with Georgia Institute of Technology on media use of drones. And earlier this year, the network said it had entered into a cooperative research and development agreement with the FAA that integrates its work with Georgia Tech. Its initial plans involve two aircraft platforms: the AirRobot AR180 quadcopter and the Drone Aviation WATT-200 tethered drone.

“Through our partnership with Georgia Tech we’ve developed a relationship with the FAA directly. We found out that they were both asking the same questions,” said David Vigilante, CNN senior vice president, legal. “Now we get to work to see what’s possible over the next coming years…It’s our goal, our hope, to be able to use (unmanned aircraft) in our coverage all across the country.”

PrecisionHawk, which builds the Lancaster Hawkeye Mark III, a small fixed-wing aircraft, will research extended line-of-sight operations of both small planes and multirotor helicopters for crop monitoring and “precision agriculture” missions. The company will also test its low-altitude tracking and avoidance system, or LATAS, with transponder-equipped aircraft.

BNSF Railway will research BVLOS drone flights to inspect rail infrastructure in isolated areas. Gary Grissum, the rail company’s assistant vice president for telecommunications, said BNSF will consider both fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft for that role. The company has already secured Section 333 exemptions from the FAA to fly multi-rotor helicopters made by AirRobot and 3D Robotics.

The long-delayed small UAS draft rulemaking the FAA released in February proposes that pilots fly drones within their unaided line of sight, to a maximum altitude of 500 feet above ground level and during daylight hours. Flights over people not involved in the operation would be prohibited. The pathfinder project aims to develop further mission profiles. “We anticipate that we’re going to receive valuable data from each of these trials that could result in FAA-approved operations in the coming years,” Huerta said.

Also on May 6, the FAA said that it will launch a smartphone application this summer called “B4UFLY,” developed with Mitre Corp., to inform hobbyists and recreational drone users of any restrictions or requirements in the areas they plan to fly. The agency will conduct a beta test of the application with 1,000 users, including the first 700 from the public who email the agency at B4UFLY@faa.gov.