The FAA has approved small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS) research flights—some of which have already started—to test new technologies and new operating procedures which may be the basis for future regulations.

Certain organizations and commercial entities, such as PrecisionHawk, BNSF Railroad and CNNhave reached out to the FAA and developed Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (“CRDA”).  These research agreements are provided pursuant to the Federal Technology Transfer Act of 1986 (15 U.S.C. 3701 et seq.) and have allowed these companies to begin testing beyond line-of-sight and nighttime operations at FAA’s test sites and other locations.

Current sUAS regulations for non-commercial operations and section 333 exemptions require that sUAS, among other limitations:

  • Be flown less than 400 feet above ground level (“AGL”);
  • Be within the operator’s visual line-of-sight at all times;
  • Not be flown at night; and
  • Not be operated in populated areas.

Regarding the line-of-sight requirements, the FAA approved recent test flights in North Carolina to test extended agricultural flights beyond the sight of the operator.  Reports also suggest that this testing will also experiment with “see and avoid technology” that will allow UAS to automatically avoid objects or no-fly zones.[1]  BNSF railroad also has the FAA’s permission to run test sUAS flights beyond the line-of-sight to inspect its rail infrastructure, although the flights remain limited to 400 feet AGL.[2]

At the North Dakota UAS Testing Facility, the FAA has approved test flights at night and up to 1,200 feet AGL, taking advantage of North Dakota’s relatively quiet airspace and flat terrain.  Night flights present potentially safer operating conditions with less air traffic and lower wind speeds.[3]

The FAA has also approved the news agency CNN’s test flights for news gathering purposes in populated areas.  The UAS will have to be tethered and remain within the operator’s line-of-sight.[4]

Allowing this limited testing for entities with a CRDA will allow the FAA to collect critical data regarding the safety considerations of each unique flight.  The flights also hint at future regulatory changes.  While unlikely to be reflected in the sUAS rules that are expected in June 2016, the testing is a promising step for demonstrating to the FAA that improved sUAS technologies can operate safely in circumstances that present increased risk.