For the first time in Alaska, and the United States, a company is flying drones over land for commercial purposes. BP is using Unmanned Aerial Systems to inspect roads, gravel pads, and pipelines on the North Slope. It’s the first time the Federal Aviation Administration has approved drones for this type of use.
Curt Smith, Technology Director for BP, said the four-and-a-half foot long aircraft use cameras and laser systems to map areas and collect data they can’t get from conventional methods.
“So we can’t drive over there [to the pipelines] because it’s tundra, whereas the Puma can fly over it without any damage or without harassing animals because it’s silent and invisible. Because unless you’re staring at it, you wouldn’t notice it’s there.”
Smith said the planes can fly low enough and slow enough to capture high quality data about the thickness of the roads and gravel pads to make sure they are protecting the tundra.
Pilots from AeroVironment control the 9-foot wide Puma AE aircraft. They launch them by hand and have to stay in visual range for safety reasons.
Smith said the project is good for BP because they’re getting better quality data than they would otherwise and saving money, but they’re also breaking new ground for many companies.
“I think the big thing is it’s the trailblazer,” Smith said. “The FAA, AeroVironment, and BP have worked out do how you get the permission. And being first is always difficult because you hit the stumbling blocks, and you say, ‘What am I going to do with that?’ And then you figure it out and you go on. But once that’s figured out, you should be able to leverage that for the next time, right?”
A spokesperson from the FAA says filmmakers are already applying to use the unmanned craft in controlled, low-risk situations like movie sets.
The FAA is required by Congress to allow the use of drones in the Arctic for commercial purposes.