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​FAA trials show willingness to let drones fly out of sight of operators

The US regulator announces tests of unmanned aircraft flying farther away from pilots than proposed regulations permit.

PrecisionHawk's fixed-wing drones for crop monitoring are part of an FAA program to evaluate whether the unmanned aircraft should be allowed to fly beyond the operator's sight.
PrecisionHawk's fixed-wing drones for crop monitoring are part of an FAA program to evaluate whether the unmanned aircraft should be allowed to fly beyond the operator's sight. PrecisionHawk

The US Federal Aviation Administration has taken one step back from earlier opposition to letting drones fly when pilots can't see them.

Drones, also called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or unmanned aircraft systems (UASs), are a hot item in technology circles. Entrepreneurs and big businesses want to use drones for chores like taking real estate photos and shooting movies.

But some other uses, like checking miles of oil pipeline or delivering packages, require drones to fly beyond operators' sight. That wouldn't be allowed under the draft drone regulations the FAA proposed in February.

On Wednesday, though, the FAA announced industry partnerships that signal the agency could be willing to let drone operators stretch their wings more. The projects will evaluate drones operated beyond the pilot's line of sight, with drone maker PrecisionHawk testing the aircraft for crop monitoring and BNSF Railroad exploring what's necessary to control drones used to inspect railroads.

The move shows the FAA gradually coming around to the business possibilities of drones. Its initially conservative stance -- for example an early requirement that operators have pilot's licenses -- is gradually fading. It's not going as far as companies like Amazon might like, permitting services to let drones deliver packages in crowded urban areas, but the FAA looks like it wants to be an enabler, not opponent, of the new technology.

"Government...can't operate in a vacuum," US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement. "We'll get to our goal of safe, widespread UAS integration more quickly by leveraging the resources and expertise of the industry."

The PrecisionHawk test will involve the company's Low Altitude Tracking and Avoidance System (LATAS) system, a sort of air-traffic control system that includes technology for tracking drones and preventing collisions. Safety has been a prime FAA concern with drones.

Amazon has made a big stink about the FAA's drone caution, acting on a threat to move some drone delivery research to another country even though the FAA later granted Amazon an exemption that lets it test its technology and train its operators.

Today, commercial use of drones is prohibited unless the FAA grants a company an exemption. Private use is allowed, though, and companies like DJI and Parrot are aggressively pushing relatively inexpensive models that let people shoot video from the sky.

The DJI S1000  octocopter drone can carry a high-end SLR for photo or video capture.
The DJI S1000 octocopter drone can carry a high-end SLR for photo or video capture. DJI

The proposed regulations were supposed to be finalized by September 2015, but few expect the FAA to meet that deadline.

One complication: the FAA must address public comments to the proposed regulations, and it's received 4,500 comments so far.

The FAA on Wednesday also announced a smartphone app, B4UFLY, that lets noncommercial drone operators figure out if drones are restricted in the area where the operator is located.