May 11, 2014

Heeding a rising swell of industry calls to expedite the safe introduction of commercial unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the national airspace, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta announced three new partnerships this week, which may ultimately lead to UAS flights over urban environments and beyond the operator’s visual line-of-sight.

Under the “Pathfinder” initiative, cable news outlet CNN will provide data on UAS newsgathering operations in urban areas, while UAS manufacturer PrecisionHawk will research small UAS (s-UAS) flights outside the operator’s direct line of sight for use in crop monitoring operations. National rail operator BNSF will explore the use of s-UAS in beyond line-of-sight inspections of rail system infrastructure.

“There are a lot of bright minds that are focused on how we best advance this very exciting technology,” Huerta noted during the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) Unmanned Systems 2015 conference in Atlanta, GA. “People are finding ways to use [these] devices on a daily basis, and the energy here at AUVSI is certainly proof of that.”

Bob Lamond, NBAA director of air traffic services and infrastructure, said that the FAA’s plan could help contribute to data collection needed for safely integrating UAS into the National Airspace System, and that NBAA would be carefully monitoring the initiatives.

Notably, the programs expand the scope first outlined in the agency’s notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) governing commercial use of s-UAS, which was released earlier this year. The NPRM stated, among other things, that s-UAS must not be operated over any persons not directly involved in the operation of the aircraft, and the aircraft must remain within visual line of sight of the operator or visual observer at all times.

“These new initiatives should help provide much-needed data for the FAA to draw from in crafting safe and sensible regulations governing the expanded operation of UAS,” said Lamond, who attended the AUVSI conference. “The announcement also highlights the multi-pronged approach the FAA must take toward broader adoption and acceptance of UAS in a wide range of operational theaters.”

While at the AUVSI conference, Lamond continued to communicate the Association’s long-standing position on UAS. Specifically, NBAA has long maintained that it is imperative that any introduction plan for UAS be thoughtful, deliberative and focused on safety. This means UAS should not share the same airspace with manned aircraft until they have equivalent certification and airworthiness standards as manned aircraft, including the ability to take timely directions from air traffic control, and to sense and avoid other aircraft and UAS.

The comment period for the FAA’s initial NPRM on s-UAS ended in late April. The agency must now review the approximately 4,500 responses to the NPRM – including more than 60 points raised by NBAA in its comments on the proposed regulations – before issuing a final rule governing the commercial use of s-UAS.

Read about NBAA’s Comments on the FAA s-UAS NPRM.

Also at the AUVSI conference, the FAA announced a new smartphone application called “B4UFLY,” intended for use by UAS and model aircraft operators to determine if it is safe and legal to fly in their current or planned location.

Scheduled for release on iPhones later this year, with an Android version to follow, the FAA app draws its name from the “Know Before You Fly” educational campaign to provide prospective UAS operators with information and guidance on conducting safe UAS operations. NBAA supports the Know Before You Fly initiative. Lamond also noted that a similar application, AirMap, was recently introduced by a private company, and can be used on iOS, Android and Windows platforms. View the AirMap app.

Review NBAA’s s-UAS resources.