The drone industry and the FAA haven’t always seen eye to eye, but both sides appear to be finding common ground and moving toward safely integrating drones into U.S. skies.
The FAA announced Wednesday that it would allow PrecisionHawk and BNSF Railway to test drone flights outside the line of sight of pilots. As part of this Pathfinder Program CNN will be allowed to test drones over cities. The FAA, which didn’t include outside of line-of-sight operations in its proposed rules this February, now appears fully committed to testing and determining if it can be done safely.
Relations between the sides had been strained previously, as the FAA missed deadlines for making commercial drone flights legal. Some drone advocates warned that the United States was being left behind as other nations moved quicker to provide rules for drones.
But now, Michael Drobac, executive director of the Small UAV Coalition, says that a spirit of camaraderie and community has developed between U.S. regulators and the drone industry.
“It’s a real triumph for technology, for consumers and for safety,” Drobac said. “Now we’re seeing a certain degree of coordination of movement at the FAA with industry partnerships, a kind of mindshare and a working relationship that is going to develop into something that will allow the U.S. to surge forward in grand fashion to take center stage and lead the world again.”
In his Wednesday speech, FAA administrator Michael Huerta said that data gathered at the trials could lead to FAA-approved operations in the next few years.
“The FAA for so long was asking industry to bring them solutions and I think that we’ve seen the fact that they are very responsive to that,” said Lisa Ellman, co-chair of McKenna Long & Aldridge’s unmanned aircraft systems group, who previously worked on drone policy at the U.S. Justice department.
Earlier this year the FAA streamlined the process for drone operators to apply for and receive an exemption to fly commercially. (Previously some exemption holders had grown frustrated with the time it took the FAA to approve flights, which hampered their ability to take on jobs.)
In January, PrecisionHawk presented Latas, its new air traffic management system, to the FAA as a solution for ensuring safe flights beyond line of sight. PrecisionHawk spokeswoman Lia Reich described that as building a trust that led its inclusion in the Pathfinder Program.
“We still have a long ways to go in planning what this is going to look like,” Reich said. “But we’re ready to start right away, starting to feed data back to the FAA.”
PrecisionHawk plans to create a partnership with other drone companies to encourage widespread testing.
“One of the big things for us is having our other industry leader come to us and say all right, how can we be part of sort of testing this live system,” Reich said. “For them it would be an opportunity to start testing and be a part of potential solution. That will benefit the industry as a whole.”
Reich says PrecisionHawk has already been approached by large players in the insurance and energy industries.
BNSF Railway says it will use drones to supplement inspections of rail lines and operations. But the use of drones won’t eliminate the need for in-person visual inspections, which the Federal Railroad Administration requires.