The Federal Aviation Administration plans to work with CNN and others to test a new system that could allow commercial-drone operators to better pilot drones in urban areas, it announced Wednesday.
The agency has faced pushback over its proposed regulations of commercial drones, which critics have said are too conservative. Amazon has already said it wants to use this technology to deliver packages, and the FAA action could eventually make that happen.
"Integrating unmanned aircraft into our airspace is a big job, and it's one the FAA is determined to get right," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said at a conference organized by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International in Atlanta.
The program, which the FAA is calling "Pathfinder," will see the agency partner up with three companies that want to use drones: CNN, PrecisionHawk (a drone manufacturer), and BNSF Railway.
CNN will explore using drones for news-gathering in urban settings, but only when the operator can see the drone he or she is flying. PrecisionHawk and BNSF plan to use drones remotely—"beyond visual line of sight"—for crop surveys and infrastructure inspection, respectively.
Huerta said the results of the research the FAA will conduct with the program's three partners will "help us determine if and how we can safely expand unmanned-aircraft operations in the United States." The agency tweeted that the research "could result in FAA-approved operations in the next few years."
The announcement begins to address one of the loudest criticisms that came from drone operators and advocates after the FAA released its proposed set of rules for commercial-drone flights in February. Those rules, which only allowed operators to fly drones where they can see them, were challenged in public comments submitted by prominent voices like Amazon, which wants to use drones for an automated-delivery system, and AUVSI, the host of the Atlanta event.
"The ability to safely conduct [beyond-visual-line-of-sight] operations will unlock the transformative potential that small UAs offer for package delivery and myriad other exciting, and even lifesaving, applications—for example, the delivery of medical supplies and search-and-rescue operations," Amazon's vice president for public policy, Paul Misener, wrote to the FAA in a letter last month.
Amazon has been testing its drone system in Canada, where airspace regulations are more permissive than in the United States. While the FAA's program doesn't involve Amazon, it's a first step toward conciliation with the retail giant. "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," AUVSI CEO Brian Wynne said in a statement Wednesday.
An Amazon spokesperson declined to comment on the Pathfinder program.
As it kicks off this new program, the FAA is still sifting through the more than 4,000 public comments it received after it released its rules in February. The agency has not announced when it plans to finalize the regulations.