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FAA, Industry Partners Launch Pathfinder Program to Define UAV Integration into Airspace

May 6, 2015  - By
CNN will use Drone Aviation's tethered drones to gather footage in in urban areas from never-seen-before angles and heights. The company's WATT-200 was unveiled at the AUVSI this week.

CNN will use Drone Aviation’s tethered drones to gather footage in in urban areas from never-seen-before angles and heights. The company’s WATT-200 was unveiled at the AUVSI this week.

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Administrator Michael Huerta announced two new initiatives related to unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) today at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) Unmanned Systems 2015 conference in Atlanta, Ga.

Pathfinder, the first initiative, announced in the morning, is reported here. The second initiative is an app in development to enable drone hobbyists to fly their craft safety.

Administrator Huerta told the large gathering of national journalists, “The unmanned aircraft industry is changing faster than any segment in the aircraft industry. A new project to harness that energy, the Pathfinder program, is partnering with three leading U.S. companies to expand unmanned aircraft operations in the United States.”

Photo: Federal Aviation AdministrationThe FAA is working with industry partners on three focus areas:

  • CNN (Cable News Network) will research visual line of sight (LOS) operations for newsgathering in urban areas. CNN will continue working with Georgia Tech University to improve newsgathering for all organizations.
  • PrecisionHawk will investigate agricultural operations for rural areas, flying outside LOS.
  • BNSF Railway, second-largest freight railroad network in North America, will undertake inspection of rail infrastructure, also beyond visual LOS.

Huerta said that the partners, collectively, “are trying to push the envelope, what can we accommodate, accommodate safely, and what can we learn from that.  We’ll test a little, learn a little, then test some more. How do we see a staged implementation? To integrate unmanned aircraft, but to do it safely, as directed by Congress.  We’re trying to push the edges of what we can allow, working with partners who have specific uses and resources that they will apply to those.”

When asked for a timeframe to reach  new UAV regulations, he replied, “I can’t comment a lot on the rule itself, but it’s fair to say that in the rulemaking comment process [which closed on April 24], we received more than 4,500 comments. It’s too early to say how those comments will shape what the final rulemaking will take.  Assessment will be done in the coming months, perhaps by the end of the year, but that’s an aggressive timetable. This effort will go on as long as the partners want us to go on doing it.  That’s not accomplished in six months, nor should it take a million years.”

As to LOS restrictions, and beyond LOS, he replied,  “The framework of the previously published rule was focused on LOS, and on the use of visual observers in addition to the operator.  Now we’re taking the next step, to explore beyond LOS uses. What are reasonable applications for that, and what mitigations for safety should be put in place for that? Everyone wants to get there. It’s important to figure out how we get there safely.”

What mitigations will be put in place for beyond LOS? A vice president of BSNF Railway said that the company is “working with FAA and several vendors around command and control infrastructure. This is yet to be fully defined.  The railroad is a very safe an unforgiving environment.  This doesn’t replace anything we’re doing today, it’s an addition.” He defined the operating environment as ” a 300 or 400-mile capability, to fly looking for broken rail, etc., beyond the visual, on-the-ground inspections that rail crews already do. ” He anticiated the use of “sense-and-avoid technology [for the UAVs], not using chase planes but perhaps using communications capabilities from cell towers and railway infrastructure along the right of way.”

The CEO of PrecisionHawk commented similarly, “We’re not changing much of our operational flow, just extending the baseline for it.  We will implement a traffic-management technology, called Lattice, leveraging to ensure safety and reliability beyond the operator’s LOS.”

Gregory Agvent, CNN’s director of News Operations, said he looked forward to “some camera shots that were previously impossible for us, that now we’re going to be able to do.” Under the terms of the Certificate of Authorization (COA), Agvent said that “We’re capable of doing it [undertaking UAV missions] without asking for (FAA) permission” for specific flights. 

The three industry participants concurred that they will work with their [UAV] partners in parallel with the rules to develop a certification process, so that the FAA can determine their vehicles are uniformly safe, the same way the y do with piloted aircraft currently. Both the railroad and PrecisionHawk have one currently operating flight platform each, and are looking at others, as theirs do not fit all applications.

“These are not exclusive [agreements],” emphasized Huerta, “limited to particular platforms or applications. This is a practical research effort to apply, learn, and integrate on the broadest scale.” When asked about possible further participants in the Pathfinder project, Huerta indicated the three companies represented on the briefing platform with him: “They came to us.  You can interpret that as an invitation. We’re casting a very wide net. How do we et to a broader integration and implementation?  We need multiple ways to gather information.”

Agvent urged, “It’s critical for manufacturers to come to the table, to get certified by make as opposed to individual models, to get free access to the sky.”

Huerta concluded, “We are learning together, as an industry and as a regulator.  How can we collectively, as an industry, learn more in order to see a much more robust integration of unmanned aircraft into our aviation industry?  We’re all interested in pushing the boundaries, and sharing the information broadly across the industry.”

The surprise preview of the pending announcement drew scores of curious and concerned industry representatives and exhibitors at the massive AUVSI show, who gathered anxiously outside the press briefing room, to which they were not admitted.

“The FAA is moving ahead with safe integration of UAS into the busiest, most complex airspace in the world,” according to an FAA statement issued prior to the briefing.”Even as the agency proceeds with rulemaking for small UAS, it continues to look at new ways to foster safe UAS operations by both hobbyists and businesses.”

About the Author: Alan Cameron

Alan Cameron is the former editor-at-large of GPS World magazine.