FAA UAS Pathfinder update draws big crowd, many questions

By Luke Geiver | May 12, 2016

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) Pathfinder program is still a room-filling topic. In 2015, the FAA released plans at the annual Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International event to establish a program to research and test UAS flights over people and beyond visual line of sight with the help of private industry partners CNN, Precisionhawk and BNSF. The 2015 announcement and presentations on the program created a standing-room-only environment at the worlds’ largest unmanned systems event. This year’s program updates once again packed a room at AUVSI’s Xponential event in New Orleans with nearly every FAA test site represented in the room (each of which asked questions during the Q&A) along with several prominent UAS entities.

Although the FAA has been working on policy based on the Pathfinder program for more than a year, Leslie Swann, FAA manager of airspace policy and rules, told the crowd that the FAA still needs input from industry to help inform newer policy.

In the past year, the FAA has added to its Pathfinder program, including work to research counter-UAS support near airports. Alan Kraft, executive director for cybersecurity at CACI, updated the crowd on CACI’s work to test its technology near an Atlantic City, New Jersey, airport. From late-January to mid-February, CACI set-up its system at the Atlantic City airport to test the process of integrating counter-UAS at airports. The technology set-up included four passive sensors, one central server and one workstation. The sensors were placed around the airport to establish multiple data-collection and testing zones that all formed a virtual perimeter around the location. When manned aircraft were not flying, University of Maryland researchers flew a range of sUAVs around the perimeter of the CACI set-up during clear and harsh weather conditions. Although official findings from the work are not yet public, Kraft said all of the UAVs were detected and the risk on incoming flights into the airport airspace mitigated. “Results were good,” Kraft said, “or better than predicated.” The FAA has also added Gryphon Sensors and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to its Pathfinder program team to test other counter-UAS systems.

CNN’s Director of News Operations Greg Agvent provided an update on the news company’s efforts within the Pathfinder program. Through the past year, CNN has worked to create an ecosystem for implementing drones into newsgathering and storytelling, he said, including investments in platforms and testing. The CNN team has flown over 30 times and is continuing to work at establishing a repeatable flight process for flights over people. Agvent said CNN would like a more robust blanket COA and hopes in the next year the FAA will allow it actually fly over people.

Precisionhawk’s Tyler Collins, director of business development, said the team is working this summer to test its extended visual line of sight flight concept. The EVLOS process would include a visual observer that would allow a drone operator to fly a sUAV out to roughly two to three nautical miles. Testing of the concept will take place this summer.

Todd Graetz, program manager for BNSF’s UAS program, provided a detailed look at the work BNSF has done in New Mexico to fly beyond visual line of sight along with its future plans for integrating UAS into day-to-day operations. BNSF has roughly 32,000 miles of track to manage and maintain, he said. Currently, BNSF is flying UAVs every day and in two to three months, there could be six teams flying per day.

The company is currently working to test a complete system for BVLOS, including all of the hardware, platforms, software and sensors needed. By Q3, BNSF hopes to be performing regular BVLOS flights daily and by the first half of 2017, subdivisions across the U.S. will be flying daily. “The technology we need to do this exists today,” Graetz said. “By the end of the year, we’ll demonstrate that the pathfinder program works.”