The Federal Aviation Administration said Tuesday that it has granted the first permission for commercial drone flights over land, the latest effort by the agency to show that it is loosening restrictions on commercial uses of the unmanned aircraft.
Drone-maker AeroVironment of Monrovia, Calif., and the energy corporation BP 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 Sunday.
Made by AeroVironment, the Puma is a small, hand-launched craft about 41 / 2 feet long and with a nine-foot wingspan. It was initially designed for military use.
Drones are often less expensive to operate than manned aircraft and easier to maneuver. Equipped with 3D cameras, the Puma will provide images, currently unavailable, of hard-to-reach places, BP and AeroVironment say.
AeroVironment chief executive Tim Conver said that 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 approved the Puma and the ScanEagle, made by Boeing subsidiary Insitu of Bingen, Wash., 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.
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 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.
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 United States.