FAA program tests drones flying beyond pilot's line-of-sight

The agency has also partnered with CNN for drone tests in urban areas

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has announced tests of drones in urban areas as well as outside the pilot's line-of-sight, possibly paving the way for operations such as the aerial delivery of packages as proposed by companies like Amazon.com.

FAA administrator Michael P. Huerta announced Wednesday a new Pathfinder Program under which the agency has partnered with three U.S. companies to explore three key types of unmanned operations.

PrecisionHawk, a drone manufacturer, will be surveying crops in rural areas using unmanned aircraft flying outside of the pilot's direct vision, while BNSF Railroad will test the unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to inspect their rail infrastructure beyond visual line-of-sight in isolated areas, Huerta said at a conference of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

News network CNN will be testing drones for news gathering in urban areas.

The FAA and Department of Transportation proposed in February new rules that would allow companies to fly drones of less than 55 pounds at an altitude of up to 500 feet and at speeds of up to 100 miles per hour during daylight hours. The drone must be flown by a licensed drone operator and kept within visual line-of-sight at all times.

Huerta described the proposed rules as containing "commonsense provisions," like not flying near airports, at night, or more than 500 feet off the ground.

While the FAA addresses over 4,000 comments on the proposal before finalizing the rule, which would take time, it is meanwhile looking for other ways to expand the use of unmanned aircraft.

"We anticipate receiving valuable data from each of these trials that could result in FAA-approved operations in the next few years," Huerta said.

The FAA also released at the conference a smartphone app, called B4UFLY, that users can use to determine whether there are any restrictions or requirements in effect at the location where they want to fly their UAS. The FAA is inviting volunteers to test the app, with plans to release to about 1,000 beta testers. It will be available on iOS first with an Android version to follow.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

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