BNSF to partner with FAA on aerial drone research; UP obtains approval for drone use

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WASHINGTON – BNSF Railway and Union Pacific – the first Class I railroads to embrace the potential benefits of aerial drones – are moving closer to takeoff.

BNSF is one of three companies that will partner with the Federal Aviation Administration to push the boundaries of aerial drone use, the agency announced yesterday.

The railroad will test the challenges of flying aerial drones beyond the operator’s line of sight in remote areas of New Mexico. BNSF in March received the FAA’s blessing to use drones to supplement the regular inspection of its track, bridges and other infrastructure. But that required the drones to remain within view of the operators.

The FAA is developing rules that would lift its ban on the commercial use of aerial drones, which it calls small, unmanned aerial systems, or UAS. In March the FAA streamlined the application process for commercial operators who seek exemptions from the ban. And yesterday, at a drone industry conference in Atlanta, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said the agency is reaching out to industry to help it move more quickly to safely integrate drones into the nation’s crowded airspace.

“Even as we pursue our current rulemaking effort for small unmanned aircraft, we must continue to actively look for future ways to expand non-recreational UAS uses,” Huerta said. “This new initiative involving three leading U.S. companies will help us anticipate and address the needs of the evolving UAS industry.”

Thus far the FAA has permitted commercial drone operations outside of urban areas and then only within sight of the operator. BNSF, CNN, and drone manufacturer PrecisionHawk asked the FAA to work with them to explore line-of-sight drone flight in urban areas as well as flights outside the operator’s view in rural and isolated areas.

CNN and the FAA have already been working together on how to use drones for newsgathering in urban areas within visual sight of the operator. PrecisionHawk is discussing a partnership with the FAA so that it can fly drones outside the pilot’s direct vision as a way to extend the monitoring of crops. The BNSF partnership with the FAA is nearing finalization.

Meanwhile, the railway is preparing to launch its drone program before the end of the year, BNSF spokeswoman Roxanne Butler said. “We are ramping up for the rollout. Our initial testing will be in New Mexico,” she said. The railroad will be hiring drone operators, buying drones and related equipment, and assembling a team for test flights, Butler added.

BNSF says the use of aerial drones will result in safer inspection procedures for railway personnel, as well as a safer and more efficient rail network. The use of drones does not eliminate the need for in-person visual inspections required by the Federal Railroad Administration.

The FAA on April 17 approved Union Pacific’s request to use aerial drones to inspect derailment sites involving hazardous materials. “When such an incident occurs, a quick and accurate assessment of the nature and scope of hazards can be a matter of life and death,” UP stated in its application, which was submitted to the agency in December 2014. “An exemption allowing UP to utilize a UAS for such assessments could save lives.”

Trains News Wire is awaiting additional information from UP.

Other Class I railroads have said they are considering ways to deploy drones, but they have yet to seek FAA approval.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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