FAA sets first commercial drone flights

Small unmanned aircraft will be used to check BP pipelines, infrastructure over Alaska

puma ae launch

The Federal Aviation Administration today said it gave approval to energy company BP to fly small unmanned aircraft in commercial airspace over Alaska.

 Specifically the FAA issued a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization to survey BP pipelines, roads and equipment at Prudhoe Bay, the largest oilfield in the United States. The FAA has said in the past it would set at least three permanent Arctic areas where unmanned aircraft operations would take place.

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Using the information generated by the Puma’s sensors, BP hopes to target maintenance activities on specific roads and infrastructure, which will save time and support safety and operational reliability goals, while helping to protect the sensitive Alaskan North Slope environment, the FAA stated.

The drone, an AeroVironment Puma, is a small, hand-launched aircraft that is about 4 1/2 feet long, has a wingspan of 9 feet and can fly almost four hours.  According to AeroVironment the Puma AE t carries an electro-optical and infrared camera plus illuminator on a lightweight mechanical gimbaled payload, allowing the operator to keep “eyes on target.” For increased payload capacity, an optional under wing Transit Bay is available for easy integration of 3rd party payloads such as communications relay, geo locations, or laser marker to meet the diverse needs of military or civilian applications.

The FAA noted that last summer, it issued restricted category type certificates to the Puma and Insitu’s Scan Eagle, another small UAS. The certificates were limited to aerial surveillance only over Arctic waters. The FAA recently modified the data sheet of the Puma’s restricted category type certificate to allow operations over land after AeroVironment showed that the Puma could perform such flights safely.

 “As required by the legislation [FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012], only small UAS (55 lbs. or less in Gross Takeoff Weight) will be approved for operations in the permanent Arctic areas and corridor routes. During the implementation of this plan, the FAA will develop processes to facilitate the safeoperation of unmanned aircraft beyond line of sight, as directed in the Act. However, initialoperations will only be permitted within line-of-sight, which will require both a pilot and a visual observer. A phased approach will be necessary to transition from line-of-sight operations to beyond line-of-sight operations,” the FAA stated.

The FAA approval in Alaska comes on the heels of a National Research Council report that said there a many technical, regulatory and social issues must be overcome if unmanned aircraft are to be successfully integrated into US public airspace.

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