Inside the FAA’s Pathfinder Program
BY Alan Perlman6 February 2017
If you google “FAA Pathfinder Program” or variations of these keywords the search results will include links to the “Focus Area initiative Pathfinder Program,” speeches about the launch of Pathfinder initiatives, and a link to a page on the FAA website for “Programs, Partnerships and Opportunities.”
But you won’t find a link to an FAA page about the Pathfinder Program itself, because no such page exists (to the best of our sleuthing—if you manage to track one down, please let us know.)
The lack of a page devoted to the Pathfinder Program, or any language at all on the FAA website that defines the program (and not just one of its initiatives) makes it tricky to figure out what the program is. (We did find this dead link to a page that looks like it was supposed to be devoted to defining the Pathfinder Program and the legislation that birthed it; the link came from a blog post on the Redbird website.)
But if you read up on the available links, you can deduce that the program is, in essence, a series of initiatives launched by the FAA in collaboration with private companies to test various uses of drones toward creating better regulations and enabling the growth of the drone industry.
The great thing about the Pathfinder Program, from everything we’ve read, is that its objective is not simply to regulate for the sake of regulating, but to gather actionable data on real drone applications and safety scenarios to inform smarter legislation.
We’ll dive into the Focus Area initiative (the first initiative launched by the Pathfinder Program) in just a moment, but it’s important to note that it seems clear from the different applications it was created to explore—flights over people and BVLOS—that the FAA wants to gather data from private companies in order to understand how existing Part 107 restrictions could be made more nuanced in order to allow for reasonable, useful UAS applications that are currently prohibited.
The Two Initiatives of the FAA Pathfinder Program
To date, only two initiatives have been launched by the Pathfinder Program.
These initiatives are listed on the FAA website, on that same “Programs, Partnerships and Opportunities” page mentioned above, but they’re mixed in with a number of other non-Pathfinder items so you wouldn’t necessarily understand they were Pathfinder-related unless you’d already done some research elsewhere.
The Focus Area Initiative
The Focus Area Initiative was the first effort of the Pathfinder Program. This initiative is a collaboration with three partners (CNN, PrecisionHawk and BNSF Railway) to investigate flight over people and Beyond Visual Line of Sight UAS as two possible commercial UAS applications.
The original goal of the initiative was to explore “incremental expansion of UAS operations in the National Air Space (NAS).” As noted above, some eventual outcomes from the Focus Area Initiative could be more nuanced rules regarding flights over people and BVLOS flying, as opposed to the current rules which simply forbid both of these items altogether.
The three focus area for this first initiative are:
- Visual line-of-sight operations over people
CNN is exploring how UAS might be safely used for newsgathering in populated areas. This project was an expansion of a pre-existing collaboration between CNN and the FAA. Even though it’s been active for over a year and a half, there doesn’t seem to be much information out there about how the project is going thus far.
- Extended visual line-of-sight operations in rural areas
PrecisionHawk is exploring how UAS flights outside the pilot’s direct vision might allow greater UAS use for crop monitoring in precision agriculture operations.
- Beyond visual line-of-sight operations in rural/isolated areas
BNSF Railway is exploring command-and-control challenges of using UAS to inspect rail system infrastructure. Back in June of 2016 BNSF announced its first BVLOS flight for railway inspections in New Mexico. The flight was done by an Insitu ScanEagle. By providing hardware and related support, Insitu has become another collaborator in the Focus Area Initiative.
The UAS Detection Initiative
The UAS/Drone Detection Initiative is the second initiative of the Pathfinder Program, and was first announced in May of 2016.
In an effort to keep airports safer and anticipate possible future threats to safety, the FAA announced its Drone Detection Pathfinder Program. The focus of the program is to detect and identify UAS systems flying too close to airports.
“Sometimes people fly drones in an unsafe manner. Government and industry share responsibility for keeping the skies safe, and we’re pleased these three companies have taken on this important challenge.”
– Marke “Hoot” Gibson, FAA Senior Advisor on UAS Integration.
Drone detection at airports and how to deal with rogue drones in controlled airspaces has been in the news a lot lately, and we can anticipate hearing even more about it as the creation and use of drones continues to grow.
FAA Drone Detection Partnerships
Central to the Drone Detection Initiative are three industry partnerships the FAA has made with Gryphon Sensors, Liteye Systems Inc. and Sensofusion.
Every one of these companies has a long track record working in the anti-drone space, which makes it clear that the FAA is aggressively pursuing both technology and strategic planning around how to identify and control rogue drones, whether they be accidentally or intentionally present in controlled airspace.
As part of this initiative, the FAA signed individual Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRDAs) with each of these companies. Details about the CRDAs are included in the partnership details listed below.
- Gryphon Sensors provides drone detection systems and safe UAS integration. Gryphon is a trusted partner of NASA, FAA, and U-Safe, and has worked with the Department of Defense for several decades. Regarding their CRDA, Gryphon’s website reads:
“Gryphon Sensors will deploy its Skylight system in the spring of 2017 as an operational proof of concept, showcasing it’s capabilities as a drone security system in an airport environment. In cooperation with the FAA, Gryphon Sensors will demonstrate Skylight’s detection, identification and classification system in multiple scenarios in which normal airport operations are commencing. Radar and sensor data will be provided to the FAA from all testing and live scenarios for development of minimum performance requirements and lessons learned.”
- Liteye Systems Inc. creates AUDS, a system designed to disrupt and neutralize Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) engaged in Hostile Airborne Surveillance and potentially Malicious Activity. The AUDS system combines electronic scanning radar target detection & classification, Electro Optic (EO) tracking and directional RF inhibition capability over three independent RF bands. Their CRDA was issued on May 10, 2016. Regarding their CRDA, Liteye issued a press release in May of 2016 that reads:
“The AUDS system will be evaluated at airports selected by the FAA. The agency and its federal government partners – particularly the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) – will work with Liteye to study how effective their technologies are, while ensuring they do not interfere with the safety and security of normal airport operations…The CRDA with Liteye expands upon collaborative efforts with industry to develop system standards to identify unauthorized UAS flights near airports, which could pose a hazard to manned aircraft.”
- Sensofusion is the creator of AIRFENCE, which can automatically detect, locate, track, and take over UAV controls all on full auto. In addition, AIRFENCE can locate the operator with pin point accuracy in real time. Regarding their CRDA, the CEO of Sensofusion said:
“We first developed the technology to detect, locate, track, and gain control over UAS three years ago as a military project and operated it with three European armies under NATO. Fast forward to the present time, and AIRFENCE is now protecting various customer sites in Europe, including prisons, high profile government buildings, police, and military sites. Since the technology is software based, it improves with over-the-air updates, ensuring that we are always ahead of the commercial UAS market.”
The FAA certainly seems open to other new initiatives, and generally expanding the Pathfinder Program. You can find links on their website to explore experimental aircraft certification, and also to contact a UAS test site.