The US Federal Aviation Administration on 6 May announced an agreement to allow three organizations to begin unmanned air vehicle (UAV) flights on “extended” line of sight, beyond line of sight and urban operations.

The agreement will allow BNSF Railway to operate a small UAV on 300-400nm missions inspecting rail lines for obstructions or damaged tracks, says Gary Grissum, the company’s vice-president of telecommunications.

BNSF plans to operate the beyond line of sight missions later this year with a still-unselected UAV weighing under 55lb with about 15h endurance, he says. To achieve sense and avoid capability, BNSF is evaluating localised ground-based radar rather than a chase aircraft, Grissum says.

A lingering concern remains securing bandwidth for the beyond line of sight command and control link, he says. Many rail lines also support cellular network towers, which could also be used to relay commands to UAVs over the horizon, he says, but it also may be necessary to re-allocate spectrum specifically for commercial UAV operations beyond line of sight.

Meanwhile, UAV manufacturer and operator Precision Hawk also will be allowed to fly extended line of sight missions in the agriculture market, says president Ernest Earon. The extended category means the UAV is operated beyond visual range but within direct line of sight of a ground-based command and control data link, he says.

Finally, the FAA also approved CNN to operate tethered UAVs for news-gathering purposes over urban areas, says David Vigilante, senior vice-president for legal for the news network.

The approvals mark the first time that UAVs will be allowed to operate beyond visual range or in populated areas, says FAA administrator Michael Huerta.

For two years, the FAA has approved Insitu to operate the ScanEagle on beyond line-of-sight missions for ConocoPhillips, but flights are limited to a region about 100nm off the coast of Alaska called the Chukchi Sea.

The new agreement will help the FAA gather information on the risks and benefits of beyond line of sight and urban operations, Huerta says.

Meanwhile, the agency is continuing to review comments on a proposed rulemaking that would establish regulations for operating small UAVs under 55lb for commercial operations within visual range of the operator, Huerta says.

The FAA released the rulemaking in February and the comment period closed on 24 April with more than 4,700 responses, which was actually fewer than the FAA had expected, says Jim Williams, head of the agency’s UAV integration office.

A normal rulemaking usually takes about 16 months to reach a conclusion after the comment period closes, but some experts expect the UAS rule to take 18-24 months.

As the rulemaking process grinds on, the FAA has cleared so-called Section 333 exemptions for hundreds of companies to operate UAVs despite not having an airworthiness certificate.

Some industry officials complain about long delays seeking approvals, but the FAA has started to loosen some restrictions. A private pilot license was initially required to operate a UAV under an exempting initially, but the FAA has started to allow operators with sport pilot licenses that require less training.

Indeed, Dave Vos, head of Google’s UAV package delivery venture called Project Wing, says that the FAA’s attitude has become suddenly more cooperative to the commercial UAV industry within the last two to three weeks.

Williams, however, denied that the FAA had softened its policies recently, insisting that it was Vos’ behavior that had recently changed.

“It was just in the past few weeks [Vos] started working with us,” Williams says. “[The FAA’s cooperation] was there before, but he just didn’t know it.”