FAA gets help from CNN for its new commercial drone-testing program

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As part of its effort to work with companies on advancing drone use here in the States, the Federal Aviation Administration announced two initiatives today that'll do just that. First, a testing program called Pathfinder will encompass CNN's existing exploration of the UAVs for news coverage with the expertise of two other companies. Rounding out the trio, PrecisionHawk will focus on surveying rural areas and BNSF Railway will use drones to inspect its tracks. As it turns out, those companies contacted the FAA directly, and Pathfinder will continue so long as the partners are willing. The FAA already gave Amazon the OK to conduct tests for its delivery drones and gave AIG permission to use UAVs for insurance inspection purposes. It also approved a commercial crop-dusting drone for agricultural use. Even though those companies have to submit reports to the FAA, the aforementioned threesome is working directly with the government as part of the newly announced project.

Pathfinder will use PrecisionHawk's LATAS (Low Altitude Tracking and Avoidance System) as the traffic-management tech for the project. The system uses a combination of onboard transponders and hardware and software on the ground to avoid collisions. More importantly, LATAS will enable tests that venture beyond the pilot's line of sight under certain conditions -- a distance that's prohibited by current FAA regulations. CNN is tasked with conducting tests in urban areas outside of visual range while PrecisionHawk and BNSF will have similar trials in rural and isolated environments.

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

For the average drone pilot, the FAA is working on a mobile B4UFLY app. The software will let hobbyists and other UAV owners know if it's safe to fly in a certain area -- like parts of Washington, DC. The app features a Planner Mode for scouting out locations for future flights and provides quick access to current drone regulations. If you're looking to try it out, you'll probably have to wait a bit. It'll be available for a group of 1,000 beta testers later this summer.

"We want to make sure hobbyists and modelers know where it is and isn't okay to fly," said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. "While there are other apps that provide model aircraft enthusiasts with various types of data, we believe B4UFLY has the most user-friendly interface and the most up-to-date information."

[Image credit: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images]