WASHINGTON, D.C. – The FAA has launched its new Pathfinder program, a partnership with three companies involved in remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), also known as drones or unmanned aerials systems (UAS).
“Government has some the best and brightest minds in aviation, but we can’t operate in a vacuum,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “This is a big job, and we’ll get to our goal of safe, widespread UAS integration more quickly by leveraging the resources and expertise of the industry.”
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta announced the initiative at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International Unmanned Systems 2015 conference in Atlanta.
The FAA is working with industry partners on three areas, including:
- Visual line-of-sight operations in urban areas. CNN will look at how RPA might be safely used for newsgathering in populated areas;
- Extended visual line-of-sight operations in rural areas. This concept involves RPA flights outside the pilot’s direct vision, according to FAA officials. UAS manufacturer PrecisionHawk will explore how this might allow greater RPA use for crop monitoring in precision agriculture operations.
- Beyond visual line-of-sight in rural/isolated areas. BNSF Railroad will explore command-and-control challenges of using UAS to inspect rail system infrastructure.
“Even as we pursue our current rulemaking effort for small unmanned aircraft, we must continue to actively look for future ways to expand non-recreational UAS uses,” Huerta said. “This new initiative involving three leading U.S. companies will help us anticipate and address the needs of the evolving UAS industry.”
The three companies reached out to the FAA to work on research continuing to expand the use of RPA in the nation’s airspace. CNN and the FAA already have been working together through a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRDA). BNSF has a draft CRDA that is nearly complete and PrecisionHawk has been working with the FAA on a possible research partnership.
Further developing these operational concepts supports the FAA’s strategy to expand RPA access, which currently includes rulemaking, reviewing operational data from the six national test sites, expanding commercial operations via the Section 333 exemption process, and issuing operational authorizations for type-certified RPA.
The FAA published a proposed rule for small RPA on Feb. 23, and received nearly 4,500 public comments by the end of the comment period on April 24.
The agency will work as quickly as possible, officials noted, but added that it must address all the comments submitted before finalizing the rule. The number and complexity of the comments will play a role in determining the timeline for a final rule, FAA officials concluded.