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FAA supports BP’s UAV flights over land in Alaska

June 11, 2014, Washington, D.C. - The Federal Aviation Administration said Tuesday it has granted the first permission for commercial drone flights over land, the latest effort by the agency to show it is loosening restrictions on commercial uses of the unmanned aircraft.


June 11, 2014
By The Associated Press

Drone maker AeroVironment of Monrovia, California, and BP energy
corporation have been given permission to use a Puma drone to survey
pipelines, roads and equipment at Prudhoe Bay in Alaska, the agency
said. The first flight took place on Sunday.

 

Made by AeroVironment, the Puma is a
small, hand-launched craft about 4 1/2 feet long and with a 9-foot
wingspan. It was initially designed for military use.

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Drones are often less expensive to
operate than manned aircraft and easier to manoeuvr. Equipped with 3D
cameras, the Puma will provide images of hard-to-reach places not
currently available, BP and AeroVironment say.

 

AeroVironment CEO Tim
Conver said the Puma "is now helping 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."

 

Last summer, the FAA had approved the
Puma and the ScanEagle made by Boeing subsidiary Insitu Inc. of Bingen,
Washington, for flights over the Arctic Ocean to scout icebergs, count
whales and monitor drilling platforms.

 

"These surveys on Alaska's North Slope
are another important step toward broader commercial use of unmanned
aircraft," said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. "The technology
is quickly changing, and the opportunities are growing."

 

Last week, the FAA said it was
considering giving permission to seven filmmaking companies to use
drones for aerial photography, a potentially significant step that could
lead to greater relaxation of the agency's ban on commercial use of
drones. So far, the only exceptions to that ban have been limited
flights that have been approved over the Arctic Ocean and now Alaska.

 

Congress directed the FAA
to provide commercial drones access to U.S. skies by September 2015, but
the agency's efforts to write safety rules for such flights by drones
have been slow, and it is not expected to meet the deadline. FAA
officials are on their third attempt to draft regulations acceptable to
the Transportation Department and the White House.

 

Regulators have said they expect to
propose rules before the end of the year intended to clear the way for
flights by drones weighing 55 pounds or less. However, it will take
months and perhaps years before such regulations become final.

 

Much of the commercial demand for
unmanned aircraft is for small drones, some of which weigh only a few
pounds.

 

The FAA estimates that within five years after regulations are
in place there will be about 7,500 commercial drones operating in the
U.S.

 

Ben Gielow, general counsel for the
Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a trade
association for the commercial drone industry, said the first approval
of commercial flights over land is "an exciting moment," but "we believe
more can and must be done to allow for limited operations for small
(unmanned aircraft) over land."

 

FAA Administrator Michael
Huerta has said drafting such rules is complex because they must ensure
that the large volume and diversity of manned aircraft in U.S. skies are
protected. Even a small drone that collides with plane travelling at
high speeds or gets chewed up by helicopter rotors could cause a crash.

 

But as the cost of small drones has come
down and their sophistication and usefulness has increased,
entrepreneurs and businesses — from real estate agents to wedding video
makers — aren't waiting for government permission. Drone industry
officials have warned that the longer the FAA takes to write
regulations, the more rogue commercial operators will multiply.