FAA OKs commercial drone flights over land

BY Joan Lowy, Associated Press  June 10, 2014 at 10:00 AM EST
A Puma unmanned aircraft system is launched in Alaska. Photo courtesy of AeroVironment

A Puma unmanned aircraft system is launched in Alaska. Photo courtesy of AeroVironment

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.

The BP energy corporation and drone maker AeroVironment of Monrovia, California, 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.

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 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.

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 traveling 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.