Washington DC, Bart Jansen, (USA TODAY): The Federal Aviation Administration announced Tuesday that permission for the first commercial drone to fly over U.S. land has gone to oil company BP and drone manufacturer AeroVironment to fly aerial surveys over Alaska’s North Slope.
AeroVironment flew a Puma AE drone on its first commercial flight Sunday to survey BP pipelines, roads and equipment at Prudhoe Bay, the largest oil field in the USA, according to the FAA.
Using the Puma’s sensors, BP hopes to target maintenance activities, in an effort to save time, improve safety and increase reliability in the sensitive North Slope environment, according to the FAA.
“These surveys on Alaska’s North Slope are another important step toward broader commercial use of unmanned aircraft,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who oversees the FAA. “The technology is quickly changing, and the opportunities are growing.”
The announcement comes at a time when the drone industry is urging faster FAA approval of commercial drones for jobs that are too dangerous or boring for people to fly conventional aircraft.
Brendan Schulman, a New York lawyer specializing in drones at Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP, said the FAA approval was granted for a drone already approved by the Defense Department for military purposes, so the decision wouldn’t allow for the variety of commercial purposes that many in the industry have in mind.
“The FAA is essentially using the military’s prior experience with this specific drone platform in place of the agency’s airworthiness certification requirements, so it is not an option for people hoping to use the newer drones being designed by high-tech startups that are not involved in military applications,” Schulman said.
Until now, the FAA has approved drones for public safety, such as police or firefighters, or for academic research, on a case-by-case basis. AeroVironment demonstrated its mapping and inspection services in Prudhoe Bay in September 2013, under an FAA certificate authorized through the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.
Drones have occasionally flown commercially without FAA authorization, such as for the making of the movie The Wolf of Wall Street. But the FAA contends it has the authority to regulate the flights – and hasn’t previously approved commercial flights over land – as it fights to uphold a $10,000 fine against one drone pilot in a challenge before the National Transportation Safety Board.
With that dispute pending, FAA officials have said they are considering expedited approvals for movie makers, agriculture and inspections of pipelines and flare stacks.
More broadly, FAA officials are developing comprehensive regulations for drones to share the skies with commercial airliners, under a congressional deadline of September 2015.
Regulations being developed deal with making sure remote pilots are qualified, that the aircraft are safe, that the drones can sense and avoid other aircraft and that they will land safely if they lose contact with their pilots.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said the 2012 law that set the timeline for drone regulation called for small drones to be integrated into Arctic airspace permanently.
“This demonstration will help us accomplish the goal set for us by Congress,” Huerta said.
The FAA issued restricted permission last summer over Arctic waters for the Puma and Insitu’s Scan Eagle, another small drone. Insitu, working with oil company ConocoPhillips, got FAA permission to fly over Arctic waters from Aug.
The FAA announcement Tuesday said AeroVironment demonstrated it could fly safely over land.
The Puma AE is a small, hand-launched drone that is about 4½ feet long with a wingspan of 9 feet. The aircraft has a battery able to fly about 3.5 hours, and it typically flies less than 45 mph between 200 and 400 feet off the ground, according to AeroVironment.
AeroVironment said it was awarded a five-year contract with BP.
The services include 3-D road mapping, pipeline inspection and analysis of the volume of gravel pits, along with monitoring wildlife and ice floes and helping search-and-rescue responses.
Tim Conver, AeroVironment’s CEO, said the drones will help BP “manage its extensive Prudhoe Bay field operations in a way that enhances safety, protects the environment, improves productivity and accomplishes activities never before possible.”