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FAA Gives Flight to Drone Test Program With Companies Including CNN

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta announces "The Pathfinder Program," in which three companies will test various aspects of drone technology, in an effort to expand their use across the U.S..
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It's a bird! It's a plane! It's ... more drones, potentially.

The Federal Aviation Administration announced on Wednesday a drone program called "Pathfinder," in which three companies including CNN will test the use of unmanned aircraft system for commercial purposes.

"We want to harness some of this energy," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said at the 11 a.m. event at the Unmanned Systems 2015 Conference in Atlanta, which is the nation's largest drone conference.

The three companies involved in Pathfinder are CNN, which will look at how drones may be used for newsgathering in crowded urban areas; PrecisionHawk, a data-driven drone company that will conduct crop monitoring in rural areas; and BNSF Railway, which will inspect track infrastructure.

All three companies "reached out to the FAA to work with us," Huerta said. He later added the Pathfinder program "is going to go for as long as the partners want to keep doing it."

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Drones to the rescue?

May 1, 201501:50

The use of unmanned aircraft by companies, film directors and other groups has been the subject of debate while the FAA works to set new rules -- and clarify those already on the books. National parks have banned the use of drones, while companies including Google, Facebook and Amazon have expressed interest in commercial possibilities.

"One of the things we have been very focused on ... is a staged implementation," Huerta said at the event, in response to a journalist's question about the FAA's timetable for setting rules for commercial drone use. "What we want to ensure is that the industry is not in any way finding themselves needing to take a step back because we do something too fast."

While the bigger FAA announcement was aimed at commercial drone users, the administration also unveiled a small initiative for hobbyists. The new "B4UFLY" smartphone app is designed to help average drone users know if it's safe and legal to fly an unmanned craft in their location of choice.

"We want to make sure hobbyists and modelers know where it is and isn’t okay to fly," Huerta said in a prepared statement. The app will initially be released to about 1,000 beta testers later this summer, the FAA said.

Earlier this week the FAA approved a commercial-use waiver for a crop-dusting drone, and massive drone maker DJI announced it raised $75 million in funding that puts the value of the company at $10 billion.