ATLANTA—Officials for the Federal  Aviation Administration (FAA) yesterday announced its Pathfinder research initiative designed to explore the limits of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS)—or aerial drone—in crowded urban areas and where line-of-sight operations are not practical.

During a press conference at the Unmanned Systems 2015 show, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta unveiled plans for the Pathfinder program, which is designed to research issues that “push the envelope” of UAS technology in cooperation with industry. Pathfinder’s three new research areas will explore UAS use in three operational scenarios that are important to the drone industry: beyond line of sight, extended line of sight and UAS use over crowds.

Three industry partners—BNSF Railroad, TV news organization CNN and PrecisionHawk, a UAS and remote-sensing company—approached the FAA to establish the Pathfinder program and will participate in the initial research efforts, Huerta said. The Pathfinder initiative complements other FAA efforts—notably, a rulemaking proceeding that focuses on UAS line-of-sight usage and UAS test sites—to determine the best methods to ensure that the UAS industry evolves safely, he said.

 “I think the important point here is that there’s not a single conduit; what we’re really trying to do is cast a very broad net,” Huerta said during the press conference. “Because, if we were to approach it in a very linear fashion—where one thing would lead to another—this would take a whole lot longer, and nobody wants that.

“What people want [to know] is how do we get to a broader implementation. That means that we, as an industry, need to be able to do a lot of different things at once. It’s for that reason that we have a rulemaking process, that we have an exemption-and-approval process, and that we have test sites. What we’re trying to do is have multiple ways that we’re trying to bringing information to illuminate what this longer-term framework is going to look like.”

As part of Pathfinder, CNN will look at how UAS might be used safely for newsgathering via line-of-sight operations in urban areas, according to the FAA. PrecisionHawk will explore the use of extended visual line-of-sight operations in rural areas, and BNSF Railroad will research the command-and-control challenges associated with using UAS to inspect rail infrastructure using beyond-visual-line-of-sight technology in rural or isolated areas.

“This is an opportunity to look at the different use cases and see how best we can do it. In our case, when we’re doing those out-of-line-of-sight communications,” PrecisionHawk President and co-founder Earnest Earon said during the press conference.

Gary Grissum, BNSF Railroad’s assistant vice president of telecommunications, said his company would like to use UAS technology over ranges of 300 or 400 miles to increase the frequency of rail inspection. Leveraging UAS would not replace any existing operations for the railroad but would be a valuable supplement to those efforts, he said.

David Vigilante, senior vice president for CNN’s legal department, said that UAS technology “has already exceeded what we thought it would be in 2015” by enabling the news organization to get video and photo shots that would not have been possible before. Although CNN will be at the forefront of UAS research via the Pathfinder program, its goals are to help develop the technology in a manner that all news organization can use as soon as possible.

“It’s our belief that the only way that CNN wins is if everybody wins, because we need to have an entire network of independent journalists that we can tap into and not just own all of them ourselves,” Vigilante said during the press conference.

Huerta said the Pathfinder program will continue “as long as the partners want to go on with us in doing it.” Through the Pathfinder research, the FAA hopes to enable UAS development in a manner that does not throttle the industry’s evolution or force it to backtrack in the future as a result of unforeseen safety issues.

“Congress has given us specific instruction to integrate unmanned aircraft, but to do it safely,” Huerta said. “What we want to ensure is that the industry does not in any way find themselves needing to take a step back because we do something too fast.

“What we’re trying to do is push the edges of the technology and push the edges of what we can allow, working with partners who have specific uses that they want to be able implement.”

Brian Wynne, president & CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), applauded the Pathfinder announcement.

 “The potential of UAS technology is on full display at Unmanned Systems 2015,” Wynne said in a prepared statement. “From anti-poaching to disaster response and package delivery, UAS applications aren’t limited by technology or imagination; they’re only limited by regulations.

“We’re pleased to see the FAA recognize the need to keep the U.S. competitive with other countries who are also interested in this technology. If the next big leaps in UAS innovation are going to occur inside the U.S., we need to lay the groundwork now for more expansive and transformational operations, including beyond line of sight.”