First Drones Fly Over Alaska

The FAA has approved commercial unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or drones, over US airspace to survey pipelines, roads, and equipment at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.
First Drones Fly Over Alaska
A man hand launches a Puma drone aircraft in an undated photo. (AP Photo/AeroVironment)
Mary Silver

For the first time, the FAA has approved commercial unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or drones, to fly over American land. The agency gave energy corporation BP and UAS manufacturer AeroVironment permission to use drones to survey BP pipelines, roads, and equipment at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.

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

First Land Flight

The first land flight was Sunday. The devices had been allowed to do surveys only over water, starting last summer, according to the FAA. “Last summer, the FAA issued restricted category type certificates to the Puma and Insitu’s Scan Eagle, another small UAS,” according to an FAA statement.

Farmers, news organizations, Amazon, and many other businesses are eager to use drones, but the law and regulations have not evolved as quickly as the technology. The UAS flying over Alaska were originally designed for military use. Because of that, its performance is a known quantity.

Made by AeroVironment, the Puma is a small, hand-launched craft about 4 1/2 feet long and with a 9-foot wingspan. BP stated that using the drones to target maintenance needs will help keep its operations safer and more stable, while protecting the fragile North Shore environment.

“The 2012 Reauthorization law tasks us with integrating small UAS in the Arctic on a permanent basis,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “This operation will help us accomplish the goal set for us by Congress.”

Third Attempt at Drone Rules

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 weighing 55 pounds or less 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.

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 traveling at high speeds or gets chewed up by helicopter rotors could cause a crash.

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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Mary Silver writes columns, grows herbs, hikes, and admires the sky. She likes critters, and thinks the best part of being a journalist is learning new stuff all the time. She has a Masters from Emory University, serves on the board of the Georgia chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and belongs to the Association of Health Care Journalists.
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