BBC News

Drone use to be expanded in US as authorities allow tests

By Kevin Rawlinson
BBC News

image copyrightFAA
image captionCNN will research how to use drones for newsgathering in urban areas

Drones are going to be used to monitor crops, inspect train tracks and cover news stories in the US as part of a series of tests.

The US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) said it would ask three firms to help it look into expanding drone use and would launch an app for pilots.

The US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the he wanted to see the widespread adoption of drones.

One expert said the plan strengthened the case for registering operators.

As part of the project, the news organisation CNN will test how to fly drones over built up areas for newsgathering, while other firms will research drone use in agriculture and rail transport.

The FAA also demonstrated a smartphone app which it said would help drone users know whether it was safe and legal to fly.

The regulator's administrator Michael Huerta said that the app, called B4UFLY, would provide drone pilots and model aircraft enthusiasts with up-to-date information.

He said: "We want to make sure hobbyists and modellers know where it is and isn't OK to fly."

image copyrightFAA
image captionThe B4UFLY app will help drone pilots see where it is and is not safe to fly

Referring to the tests, Mr Foxx said: "Government has some of the best and brightest minds in aviation, but we can't operate in a vacuum."

"This is a big job, and we'll get to our goal of safe, widespread UAS (unmanned aerial systems) integration more quickly by leveraging the resources and expertise of the industry."

But Prof David Dunn, a drone expert at the University of Birmingham, in England, called for caution.

He said: "As drone use becomes more common, there is perhaps more need for registration of drones and operators, and legislation insisting on geo-fencing and other safety and security features."

The tests are part of the Pathfinder Program, which was announced on Wednesday by the FAA's administrator Michael Huerta.

He said that, besides CNN, drone manufacturer PrecisionHawk and freight rail firm BNSF Railroad will be involved.

PrecisionHawk will research how drones can be used in farming, and BNSF Railroad will test their use in maintaining remote sections of train track.

image copyrightFAA
image captionPrecisionHawk will use the aircraft above to carry out tests on drone use in agriculture

While CNN will have to stick to existing rules requiring the drone to remain within the pilot's sight in built-up areas, that requirement will be relaxed in rural areas.

The other firms will be able to operate the devices beyond the pilot's line of sight.

"Even as we pursue our current rulemaking effort for small unmanned aircraft, we must continue to actively look for future ways to expand non-recreational UAS uses," Mr Huerta said.

"This new initiative involving three leading US companies will help us anticipate and address the needs of the evolving UAS industry."


Earlier this year, the FAA announced a series of proposed rules for the use of small civilian drones.

It included provisions against flying near airports, flying at night, or above 500ft.

It also recommended requiring the operator to be able to see the drone at all times.

It said it received more than 4,500 public comments and would address them all before it finalised its rules.

This latest round of tests goes further still after calls from the industry to be allowed to carry out research.

In March this year, Dr Ravi Vaidyanathan - a senior lecturer in robotics at Imperial College London - suggested the US authorities' sluggishness could be an opportunity for the UK as companies sought to test drones offshore.

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