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.
FAA Backs Major Drone Research Efforts, Mobile Flight Planning App
The app will determine the flight restrictions in the immediate area and will display the information on an iPhone screen. Additional features include remote flight planning, so the operator can see what restrictions might be in force for a planned flight, away from their immediate location. A similar Android app is also in development.
The “b4ufly” app will show the location of nearby airports, provide contact information for the operator of any airport and it will graphically show restricted flight areas, so you won’t be able to say that you didn’t know the White House was there when you launch your drone near Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC.
However, the app isn’t available yet. It will be launched into a beta test program in mid-summer 2015. The FAA is looking for beta test volunteers who can contact the agency at email@example.com. There’s no word yet on how the FAA will select successful applicants, although current plans are for at least 700 of the beta testers to be from the public.
Meanwhile, the FAA is continuing its existing rulemaking process. The agency has published draft rules and has been receiving comments from the public. An FAA spokesman said that the comment period has already closed and that the agency is trying to maintain an extremely aggressive schedule in moving forward by the end of 2015.
The two initiatives announced by the FAA are attempts to stay ahead of the rapid developments in drone technology. While progress is much too slow for some advocates that would like to start freely flying drones immediately, the fact is that the FAA is required to make sure that all flights in the U.S. are conducted safely.
Considering the number of reports from airline pilots who are having near-misses with drones as they take off or land at airports, it’s clear that some kind of regulation is required.
While it’s not clear that a typical hobbyist drone weighing less than a pound can do the same damage to an aircraft that can be done by a 15-pound Canada goose (the bird species that caused U.S. Air Flight 1549 to land in the Hudson River), it’s also not at all clear that damage by such unmanned aircraft would be trivial.
By releasing the new app, and by creating rules that allow drones to be operated safely, the FAA is taking a common-sense approach to safety. No doubt that common sense seems far too slow to people eager to start flying drones, but the fact is that anyone operating any type of aircraft in an area with other aircraft takes on significant responsibility. It’s critical that such responsibility be handled by people who know what they’re doing.