FAA Inside Scoop – Some insights on the Pathfinder Program

The FAA is focused on creating a safe environment for drone-based business success

The FAA is on a roll. When they first launched the Section 333 Summary Grant Process we were impressed to see them streamlining their processes.  Other efforts followed and we continued to be impressed.  Then, with the launch of the Pathfinder Program, it became clear that they have set its sights on creating the right regulatory environment for drone-based business success in the United States.

We reached out to ask a few questions about the Pathfinder Program.  An FAA Spokesperson took the time to respond to our questions.

Q. Could you explain the Pathfinder Program for our readers?

We published the proposed rule for small unmanned aircraft in February. The proposed rules would limit operations to visual line-of-sight and wouldn’t allow flights over people. The Pathfinder program is looking at areas beyond the scope of the rule.

CNN will be researching how visual line-of-sight operations might be used for newsgathering in urban areas. PrecisionHawk, a UAS manufacturer, will be surveying crops in rural areas using unmanned aircraft flying outside of the pilot’s direct vision. BNSF Railroad will explore the challenges of using these vehicles to inspect their rail infrastructure beyond visual line-of-sight in isolated areas.

Q. What prompted you to consider, and then create, the Pathfinder Program?

The small UAS rulemaking will take time, so we’re actively looking for other ways to expand the use of unmanned aircraft in the meantime. We anticipate receiving valuable data from each of these Pathfinder trials that could result in FAA-approved operations in the next few years. They will also give insight into how unmanned aircraft can be used to transform the way certain industries do business – whether that means making sure trains run on time, checking on the health of crops, or reporting on a natural disaster.

Q. Three companies were chosen: CNN, BNSF Railroad, and PrecisionHawk. What was the process to select the companies for the program and why were these three the correct choices?

These companies reached out to the FAA to work with us on exploring these three key types of unmanned operations. They also were willing to commit resources toward the effort.

Q. Will more companies be involved in this program as time goes on?

We welcome the participation of industry, but the Pathfinder program is only one part of our efforts. We encourage industry to use the resources of the six national UAS test sites, from which we’re receiving valuable information. We’re also accommodating requests for some commercial operations through several different avenues, especially Section 333 exemptions.

Q. Is this model one that you will continue to use as other aspects of drone usage are explored?

It’s one avenue for research. We just selected a Mississippi State University team as the FAA’s Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems. The COE will focus on research, education and training in areas critical to safe and successful integration of UAS into the nation’s airspace. We also are using individual cooperative research agreements with industry to further the integration of UAS into the nation’s airspace.

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