FAA creates Project Pathfinder with CNN, PrecisionHawk, BNSF

By Patrick C. Miller | May 07, 2015

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration opened the way to further commercialization of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) with the announcement this week of Project Pathfinder, the agency’s partnership with CNN, PrecisionHawk and BNSF Railway.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta held a news conference at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) Unmanned Systems 2015 conference in Atlanta, Georgia, with representatives from the three companies.

The FAA said the partnership with industry will explore the next steps in unmanned aircraft operations beyond the type of operations the agency proposed in the draft small UAS rule it published in February.

Huerta said the three companies reached out to the FAA to work on research continuing to expand use of UAS in the nation’s airspace. CNN and the FAA are currently working together through a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRDA). BNSF has a draft CRDA that is nearly complete, and PrecisionHawk has been working with the FAA on a possible research partnership.

“Government has some of the best and brightest minds in aviation, but we can’t operate in a vacuum,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “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.”

The FAA is working with industry partners on three focus areas will include:

- CNN studying the use of UAS to gather news within visual line-of-sight (LOS) operations in populated areas.

- PrecisionHawk examinng extended visual LOS operations in rural areas for crop monitoring in precision agriculture operations.

- BNSF will conduct beyond visual LOS in remote rural areas to inspect railroad infrastructure and study command-and-control issues.

“Even as we pursue our current rulemaking effort for small unmanned aircraft, we must continue to actively look for future ways to expand non-recreational UAS uses,” Huerta said. “This new initiative involving three leading U.S. companies will help us anticipate and address the needs of the evolving UAS industry.”

Christopher Dean, PrecisionHawk CEO, said, “For the commercial drone industry to achieve its maximum technological and economic potential, we need to test reliable hardware and software solutions that will address safety. We also need to provide the data that will prove that reliability to regulators and the public.”

The FAA said that further developing these operational concepts supports its overall strategy to expand UAS access, which currently includes rulemaking, reviewing operational data from the six national UAS test sites, expanding commercial operations via the Section 333 exemption process, and issuing operational authorizations for type-certified UAS.

Organizations representing the UAS industry were positive about the announcement and said Project Pathfinder is a much-needed development.

Brian Wynne, AUVSI president and CEO, said, “We’re pleased to see the FAA recognize the need to keep the U.S. competitive with other countries who are also interested in this technology. If the next big leaps in UAS innovation are going to occur inside the U.S., we need to lay the groundwork now for more expansive and transformational operations, including beyond line of sight.”

Douglas Johnson, vice president, technology policy for the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), said, “The U.S. has been the ‘first in flight’ at almost every stage of advancement, but we’re in danger of letting other countries outpace us on UAS market development. Continued cooperation between the FAA and industry, and a commitment to safely conducting beyond-line-of-sight and urban operations will be critical as we move forward.”

Michael Drobrac, executive director of the Small UAV Coalition, noted, “We know that small UAVs, or drones, can be operated safely in urban environments and beyond the line of sight.  We have seen this done safely in other countries, and we are happy now that the FAA is giving us a way to prove it.  We are ready and willing to make the safety case for this technology.”