BP Plc (BP:US) used an unmanned aircraft to survey an Alaskan oil field on June 8, marking the first legally approved U.S. commercial drone flight over land.
BP, Europe’s third-largest oil company, was allowed to fly the Puma AE aircraft made by Aerovironment Inc. (AVAV:US) under a special safety approval by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, according to statements today by the agency and the dronemaker.
The approval was granted as the FAA is trying to craft regulations governing safety and training for unmanned civilian aircraft, which range from small hobbyist planes to larger crafts used for surveying and movie making. While the FAA allowed an unmanned drone flight for ConocoPhillips (COP:US) last year, that was restricted to flying over water.
“These surveys on Alaska’s North Slope are another important step toward broader commercial use of unmanned aircraft,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in the release today. “The technology is quickly changing, and the opportunities are growing.”
Aerovironment, a Monrovia, California-based company that has sold 25,000 drones, mostly to the U.S. military, had to demonstrate that the craft was capable of operating safely. Demonstrations were performed in September 2013 by the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, the company said.
Aerovironment rose (AVAV:US) 4.7 percent to close at $35.43 today. The shares have risen 22 percent this year.
Aerovironment’s Puma AE has a 9.2-foot (2.8-meter) wingspan. It flew above oil operations in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, as part of a five-year agreement with BP to provide mapping, Geographic Information System and other services at the oil field, the largest in North America, according to the statement.
The Puma is launched by hand and can fly for more than 3 hours on its battery, according to the company website. It carries a variety of payloads, including a camera or a laser-based mapping system, according to the company. It was originally developed for the military.
“This is an important achievement for our joint team and for the industry in demonstrating the safe and effective use of our proven UAS technology for commercial applications,” Tim Conver, Aerovironment chairman and chief executive officer, said in the release.
Drones are known as unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS.
Because of the restrictions applied to the Puma flights in Alaska, its approval probably won’t spur an explosion of commercial flights on smaller drones.
The company had to demonstrate the plane was built to military standards, it must be flown by a licensed pilot and it is restricted to altitudes no higher than 400 feet above the ground, according to FAA documents.
The FAA is expected to propose regulations later this year allowing limited commercial flights on drones weighing less than 55 pounds (25 kilograms), according to a Transportation Department schedule of future rule-making.
The FAA has struggled to catch up with the growing popularity of drones, which have been used without authorization by moviemakers, real-estate agents and farmers. The agency is considering requests from seven movie and TV production companies seeking permission to use drones for filming, the agency announced June 2.
An administrative judge on March 6 overturned the FAA’s first attempt to fine a drone operator. The agency appealed the decision, which has kept in place the agency’s policy that commercial uses aren’t allowed except in the Arctic region.
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