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(Reuters) — The Federal Aviation Administration announced industry partnerships on Wednesday to test commercial drones that can fly beyond an operator's line of sight, seen as a necessary precursor to autonomous drone operations such as package delivery.
The partnership include U.S. drone maker PrecisionHawk, which will test applications for surveying crops in rural areas, and BNSF Railway Co., owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc., which will use drones to inspect rail infrastructure in isolated areas.
A third partnership between the FAA and CNN will enable the cable television news network to test newsgathering in urban areas with drones that would remain visible to operators.
"We anticipate receiving valuable data from each of these trials that could result in FAA-approved operations in the next few years," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said.
"They will also give insight into how unmanned aircraft can be used to transform the way certain industries do business — whether that means making sure trains run on time, checking on the health of crops, or reporting on a natural disaster."
The news raised the odds that beyond-visual-line-of-sight, or BVLOS, technology will ultimately be accepted by new commercial drone regulations that the FAA is working to finalize within the next two years.
The proposed FAA rules unveiled in February would lift the current near-ban on commercial drones. But the proposals, as written, still would not allow for advanced operations such as package delivery services championed by e-commerce company Amazon.com because they require drones to remain within an operator's visual line of sight as a safety measure.
The commercial use of unmanned aircraft systems, or drones, is set to take off, as the Federal Aviation Administration continues to loosen its ban on corporate use of the technology. Insurers are gearing up to write drone coverage, and three major insurers have received the green light to use drones for risk management purposes. View the photo gallery.