Amazon's ambitious plans to deliver small parcels by drones just took another little jump towards reality, with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) launching a new program to study the use of drones beyond the operator's line of sight. The initiative sees the agency team up with three companies to take drone technology forward, with the ultimate goal of hastening the safe integration of the vehicles into US airspace.
FAA administrator Michael Huerta made the announcement today at the International Unmanned Systems 2015 conference in Atlanta. For the new venture, dubbed the Pathfinder Program, the FAA will collaborate with cable news network CNN, drone manufacturer PrecisionHawk and freight railroad operator BNSF Railway.
PrecisionHawk will investigate how drones could be flown outside the pilot's direct vision for use in agriculture, while BNSF Railroad will explore the potential of using unsighted drones to inspect railway infrastructure.
The FAA has been working with CNN since earlier this year. The pair agreed in January to have the company experiment with drones in journalism, while the results would be used by the FAA to help shape its drone regulations going forward. As part of the Pathfinder Program, CNN will explore how drones could be flown within sight in populated, urban areas for the purpose of news gathering.
In February, the FAA revealed a set of proposed guidelines for commercial drone flight. Among other things, these dictated that the aircraft only be flown within the line of sight, though at the same time it invited public comment on how drones flying beyond the line of sight could be safely used. That it is now turning to the industry to help usher in these measures must be a promising sign for businesses such as Amazon and Google with drone delivery services in the pipeline.
"Government has some of the best and brightest minds in aviation, but we can’t operate in a vacuum," says US 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."
On the same day, the FAA announced a new smartphone app aimed at informing drone users when and where it is safe to fly their vehicles. Called B4UFLY, the app tells users whether then are any legal restrictions or requirements in the area they wish to fly. The agency intends to release the app to around 1,000 beta testers in the coming months.