The Federal Aviation Administration said it would work with two private U.S. companies to test commercial drones that can fly beyond an operator’s line of sight, a precursor to sophisticated drone operations such as package delivery.
The separate partnerships, with drone maker PrecisionHawk and BNSF Railway Co., , are a potential milestone in developing unmanned aircraft for a variety of business applications.
The U.S. aviation regulator also announced on Wednesday a partnership with cable television news network CNN to test news gathering in urban areas that have been largely off limits for commercial drones.
“The FAA, in these limited cases, is starting to open up the realm of what’s possible with UAS operators,” said Andrew D. Shepherd, director of the UAS program at Sinclair Community College in Dayton.
Frank Beafore, executive director of SelectTech Geospatial Advanced Manufacturing Facility in Springfield, welcomed the announcement, but said the FAA has been slow to put into place rules on the commercial use of small drones in civilian airspace. The federal agency has drafted rules that may take up to two years to put into place.
“I’m glad they’re moving forward,” he said. “I’m just disappointed it’s going to take quite a bit longer to develop a set of rules.”
In in the interim, many foreign companies have more freedom to test drones in their home countries compared to American firms testing in the United States, he said.
The FAA has been under intense pressure from industry and Congress to allow beyond-line-of-sight operations. It has heard from companies ranging from Amazon.com Inc. and Google Inc., which are developing drones that can deliver packages, to energy and agriculture firms that want to use the devices for inspecting crops or pipelines.
“We anticipate receiving valuable data from each of these trials that could result in FAA-approved operations in the next few years,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, who announced the partnerships at a drone industry convention in Atlanta.
“Integrating unmanned aircraft into our airspace is a big job, and it’s one the FAA is determined to get right,” he said in comments released by the agency in Washington.
Kerry D. Taylor, executive director of the Ohio Aerospace Hub in Dayton, said the announcement might encourage companies to locate in places, such as Ohio, which has an established UAS infrastructure.
“What we needed was a catalyst to go to the next step,” he said. “I think this is one of those steps to do that.”
Restricted air space
The FAA proposed rules in February that would lift a near-ban on companies using drones as part of their business operations. The FAA has also been granting permission for commercial drone use on a case-by-case basis since last September.
In both cases, regulators have insisted that drones fly within an operator’s line of sight for safety reasons — restrictions that would not allow for advanced operations such as package delivery services championed by Amazon.
Beyond-line-of-sight operations use on-board cameras to enable an operator to change course to avoid aircraft and other obstacles.
The partnerships with industry could raise the odds that beyond-line-of-sight technology will ultimately be accepted by new commercial drone regulations that the FAA is working to finalize within the next two years.
During the tests, the aircraft would remain in electronic line-of-sight with human operators, according to Rick Scudder, director of the University of Dayton Research Institute Center for UAS Exploitation. “For any current or proposed FAA rule or regulation, it’s all about safety,” he said in an email.
The center has conducted beyond-visual-line-of-sight operations for years, but only in restricted military airspace for defense customers, according to Scudder. UDRI aircraft are pre-programmed to return to base if two-way communication is lost, he said in an email.
“These technologies add significant cost and complexity to an unmanned aerial system, but will be equally essential for commercial systems to ensure safety and prevent ‘rogue’ aircraft,” he wrote.
He also noted the FAA is not considering autonomous flight, where a UAV flies without human supervision. “For commercial/civil unmanned aircraft, the enabling technologies to safely ‘cut the lease’ and allow full autonomy are decades away,” he wrote.
Under its FAA partnership, Raleigh, N.C.-based PrecisionHawk will test its low-altitude tracking and avoidance system for unmanned aerial systems on farmlands.