Trending: ‘It was awesome’: After Boeing’s 777X jet finishes its first flight, test pilots give the first review
PrecisionHawk Lancaster drone
PrecisionHawk is using its Lancaster drone to investigate the options for letting unmanned air vehicles fly beyond the view of their operators. (Credit: PrecisionHawk)

Should commercial operators be able to fly their drones beyond their line of sight? The question is a big deal for Amazon as well as Walmart, Google and other companies that want to use robotic air vehicles to deliver goods to consumers – but the Federal Aviation Administration needs convincing. Now the FAA is trying to nail down an answer, thanks to a series of field tests known as Project Pathfinder.

Project Pathfinder is actually a quartet of test programs, aimed at determining the safety of extended drone operations in four scenarios:

  • Last month, BNSF Rail put a Boeing Insitu ScanEagle drone through its paces in New Mexico to study how operators can safely fly long-distance robo-planes even when they’re beyond the line of sight. Northwest News Network reported that the drone successfully inspected sections of a 132-mile stretch of railway. “We were able to prove that we could do this in a rural area on a limited basis without risk to people on the ground or in the air,” Insitu’s Charlton Evans was quoted as saying.
  • Today, PrecisionHawk began a series of flights in Bahama, N.C., to look into whether small drones can be steered to avoid interfering with other flying vehicles when they’re beyond visual contact in a rural area. A powered paraglider is serving as the “intruder” aircraft for a PrecisionHawk Lancaster drone that’s equipped with the company’s LATAS guidance system. This week’s tests are being conducted with line-of-sight operation, to establish a baseline for more ambitious tests to come.
  • CNN and Georgia Tech are studying how drones can be used safely for newsgathering in urban areas. “In most cases, especially for live video, you need three people,” CNN’s Greg Agvent said last week in a Georgia Tech news release.
  • CACI International is working with the FAA on tests aimed at determining whether the company’s technology can help detect drones when they come within a five-mile radius of airports. “We are concerned about the increasing number of instances where pilots have reported seeing unmanned aircraft flying nearby,” FAA Deputy Administrator Mike Whitaker said last month.

The FAA is still working on its regulations for commercial drone operations, in addition to a separate set of rules for registering recreational drones. On one hand, Amazon and other companies want to be able to send their delivery drones well beyond the operators’ line of sight. On the other hand, the FAA is deeply worried about interference with other aircraft or sensitive sites on the ground. The past year’s crashes at the White House and the U.S. Open serve as cautionary tales.

Lia Reich, a spokeswoman for PrecisionHawk, said the Project Pathfinder tests could lead the FAA to fine-tune its commercial regulations in advance of next year’s anticipated release – or even after Version 1.0 is unveiled. PrecisionHawk has a 36-month contract with the FAA for Pathfinder flights, but Reich said that doesn’t mean FAA officials have to wait three years before taking action.

“They’ve pushed us to move faster as a company, and to learn as much as we can,” she told GeekWire.

Subscribe to GeekWire's Space & Science weekly newsletter


Job Listings on GeekWork

Find more jobs on GeekWork. Employers, post a job here.