Berkshire’s BNSF to pave way for long-distance drone flights

BSNF Railway Co., owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, will be among the first companies to operate a commercial drone over hundreds of miles in a U.S. research program to test the safety of pilot-less flights.

A camera-equipped drone will fly as far as 400 miles (640 kilometers) along tracks in rural areas to inspect rails, BNSF said. The Federal Aviation Administration also chose CNN and Precision Hawk USA to make flights beyond the visual line of sight of an operator in unpopulated areas, a practice that is currently banned.

The use of drones “increases the frequency of inspection. We have some very remote areas,” Gary Grissum, BNSF’s assistant vice president of telecommunications, said in an interview. “We’re looking to be able to detect very small defaults in the rail.”

The program, called Pathfinder, will help the FAA study the long-distance commercial use of drones in the contiguous U.S. states and the development of detect-and-avoid technology that is crucial for unmanned aircraft to operate safely in busy U.S. skies. The effort may ease criticism from companies including Inc. that have said the pace of the FAA in setting rules for commercial drones has hurt industry.

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Track inspections are vital for railroads because steel rails expand and contract with heat and cold, causing them to buckle or break. BNSF operates in the western U.S., and its drone flights may start as soon as the end of this year, Grissum said.

BNSF approached the FAA about flying drones beyond an operators’ line of sight in August while working to receive an exemption to fly small drones under more stringent rules. The FAA has awarded about 250 of those exemptions as the agency finishes restrictions for small commercial unmanned aircraft that include daytime only flights lat a maximum altitude of 500 feet and within sight of a ground operator.

Amazon, the world’s biggest online retailer, has said it needs to be able to fly beyond the line of an operator’s sight for its plans to deliver packages with automated drones.

The FAA will consider more requests from companies that want to participate in the Pathfinder program, Administrator Michael Huerta said at a news conference in Atlanta, where the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International drone conference is being held. The goal is to expand the capabilities to more companies and more areas, he said.

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“This is a practical research effort,” Huerta said. “We want to apply this so that we can look to integrate on the broadest scale.”

BNSF probably will fly a fixed-wing drone at altitudes of up to 1,000 feet under the program. The flights will be in conjunction with current track inspections, Grissum said.

While the railroad plans to develop detect-and-avoid technology, it can start flights without such a system because the railroad tracks are a defined area of flight that helps minimize risk, Grissum said.

“Sense-and-avoid is going to be a critical aspect for this,” he said. “Ideally we’d like to get on board, but that’s a ways down the road.”