The Federal Aviation Administration announced support for two research initiatives that could enable wider use of commercial drones, plus a new mobile app to help drone users plan flights and avoid problems with restricted air space.
The FAA Administrator Michael Huerta announced the new programs at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference being held in Atlanta on May 6.
The first of the initiatives is a set of joint research efforts between the FAA and three companies. Cable News Network will investigate safe use of drones in urban areas, as a tool for gathering news videos. Unmanned aircraft systems maker PrecisionHawk will investigate extended visual line of sight operations in rural areas as a part of agricultural operations. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad will try using drones in remote areas for inspecting railroad infrastructure.
An example of the work that CNN is trying to do can be seen in the photography that a number of news outlets have been producing in response to the recent earthquake in Nepal. There, drone operations have produced breath-taking video of the devastation caused by the quake.
PrecisionHawk's operations will take place beyond the pilot's direct vision while using larger drones to perform tasks such as crop dusting. Currently, agricultural aviation requires manned aircraft because of the precision required to deliver fertilizers, pesticides and even seeds accurately while flying safely at low levels. Drones will allow the human pilots to fly their aircraft from outside the cockpit, dramatically improving flight safety at least for the pilot.
BNSF has yet to determine exactly what drone platform it will use for infrastructure inspections, but much of the railroad's right-of-way lies in areas that are extremely remote, and difficult to access by any means other than by air. Drones would reduce the railroad's maintenance costs while also improving safety. The primary focus for BNSF will be on command and control.
According to an FAA spokesman, the three companies had approached the agency seeking authorization for their research and development projects, which drew the FAA into turning the research effort into a partnership. The spokesman said that it's possible that other partners with other approaches may be added to expand the studies, although he said that at this point the agency hasn't defined exactly how that might happen.
There are, however, other drone applications that will fit into what's already being allowed for local drone use on a per-case basis. For those commercial operators, the FAA is developing an iPhone app that provides immediate access to the information an operator needs to fly a drone safely.