The U.S. government will finally allow a few operators to test the boundaries of rules governing unmanned aircraft, the Federal Aviation Administration said today. It represents the latest in a long—even excruciatingly long—process of responding to Congressional directives to speed commercialization of the technology.
The point is to do things right the first time so that people won’t have to “take a step back because we do something too fast,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, at Unmanned Systems 2015, an annual convocation of UAV makers and users, this year held in Atlanta.
Three organizations will get to break two rules: that of staying within sight of the operator and that of staying out of inhabited areas. PrecisionHawk, a maker of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, will use them to study farmland along an “extended line of sight,” farther than the naked eye can see but still along a straight line back to a control point. BNSF Railroads will use UAVs to inspect railbeds far from the launch point, balancing the lack of visual contact with another means of tracking the vehicle, perhaps radar.
The third operator, CNN, will use UAVs to take video in crowded urban areas, which the FAA normally puts out of bounds. The news network will, however, keep the devices in sight—indeed, it will have them tethered to a ground station.
Such use of betatesters is one way the FAA can prove to its critics in Congress and the aviation industry that it’s on the ball. Those critics have been darkly hinting that they’d start developing their commerce-oriented UAVs in Canada or other similarly hospitable countries. In 2013, for example, the agency allowed ConocoPhillips to use the ScanEagle fixed-wing UAV to explore for oil in waters off the Alaskan coast.
Philip E. Ross is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His interests include transportation, energy storage, AI, and the economic aspects of technology. He has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and another, in journalism, from the University of Michigan.