To fully harness the potential of drones to reshape our world for the better, it’s universally agreed that these unmanned systems will have to fly outside of a pilot’s line of sight. A search and rescue operation, delivery service or precision-farming operation won’t thrive unless a drone can fly far from its owner.
So when the FAA released its proposed drone rules in February — saying drone operators must keep their eye on the aerial vehicles at all times — many in the drone industry were unhappy.
On Wednesday, the FAA offered drone proponents some cause for optimism as it announced the Pathfinder Program, which includes plans to work with two companies on extended line-of-sight and beyond line-of-sight operations. In a news release, it spoke of “the next steps in unmanned aircraft operations.”
PrecisionHawk, which manufactures drones, will explore on farms how extended line-of-sight can allow farmers to use drones to operate more efficiently. BNSF Railroad will look at command-and-control challenges to using drones to inspect railroad tracks in rural and isolated areas.
“We can’t operate in a vacuum,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a news release. “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.”
A FAA spokesman tells me that exact timelines and geographic areas for the tests are to be determined. The agency will complete safety analyses to identify and mitigate any risks.
The FAA will also work with CNN on flights over urban areas, but those will remain within the pilot’s line of sight.
The global drone economy is experiencing lightning-quick growth as regulators around the world grapple with how to handle the technology.
Tech companies Amazon and Google shifted their drone tests overseas rather than use the FAA’s test sites for drones. This has given them more control over how they fly, plus the ability to quickly iterate and innovate in locations where it’s harder for competitors to observe them.
On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Chinese drone maker DJI raised new funding from investors that values the company at $8 billion. DJI is expected to bring in $1 billion in revenue this year, a remarkable figure for a company whose revenue in 2011 was only $4.2 million.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta announced his agency’s news at the AUVSI conference in Atlanta, which many players in the drone world are attending.