At an unmanned aircraft conference in Atlanta this week, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced a new initiative with industry (known as the Pathfinder Program) that could pave the way for commercial operations of unmanned aircraft beyond the visual line of sight of the operator and in urban areas.  Industry views such operations, which are currently prohibited, as opening up a wide range of commercial opportunities.  Three companies will participate with FAA:  PrecisionHawk (a drone manufacturer) will survey crops in rural areas using unmanned aircraft flying beyond the operator’s visual line of sight; BNSF Railroad will conduct beyond-visual-line-of-sight rail infrastructure inspections in isolated areas; and CNN will explore how unmanned aircraft can be used for news gathering in urban areas.  

FAA’s new initiative focuses on operations that go beyond what would be allowed under FAA’s proposed rule applicable to small unmanned aircraft.  That proposed rule, which FAA released in mid-February, would not allow beyond-visual-line-of-sight operations or operations over congested areas such as cities.  FAA received over 4,000 comments on the proposed rule; a final rule is expected in about 16-24 months.