FAA Approves UAVs Over Land

The FAA issued a certificate of authorization (COA) to AeroVironment allowing the company to fly its Puma AE unmanned aircraft system (UAS) for energy company BP in Alaska, the first time the agency has approved a commercial UAS operation over land. The operation started on June 8, AeroVironment said.

In addition to announcing the FAA approval on June 10, AeroVironment said BP Exploration (Alaska) has awarded the company a five-year contract to provide mapping, geographic information system (GIS) and other services at its Prudhoe Bay oil field on Alaska’s North Slope. BP will use the hand-launched Puma AE, equipped with either a custom light detection and ranging (Lidar) pulsed laser system or standard electro-optical/infrared sensor payload to produce imagery and data used in generating 3D computerized models of roads, pads and pipelines. The data will also be used for “precision volumetric measurement and topographic analysis of gravel pits,” AeroVironment said.

In the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Congress directed the FAA to designate permanent areas in the Arctic where small UAS can operate regularly for research and commercial purposes. Last July, the FAA awarded Part 21.25 restricted-category type certifications to the Puma AE and Insitu ScanEagle, permitting operators in Alaska to use them upon obtaining COAs. Insitu and energy company ConocoPhillips conducted the first commercial UAS flight over water on September 12, launching a ScanEagle from the research vessel Westward Wind in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska.

According to AeroVironment, BP issued a request for information on mapping services to GIS and both manned and unmanned aircraft systems companies in June 2013. BP invited AeroVironment to perform a proof-of-concept demonstration at Prudhoe Bay using the Puma AE, which it performed last September under a COA the FAA granted to the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The FAA said it recently modified the Puma’s restricted-category type certificate to allow operations over land “after AeroVironment showed that the Puma could perform such flights safely.”

“Thanks to the FAA’s rigorous, safety-focused certification process for UAS, BP and AeroVironment have launched a safer, better and more cost-effective solution for managing critical infrastructure and resources,” said Tim Conver, AeroVironment chairman and CEO. He added: “BP’s forward-thinking embrace of UAS technology enabled AeroVironment to deliver a comprehensive approach for generating, processing and converting data collected by portable UAS into actionable information that provides tangible economic and operational advantages.”

Separately, the FAA announced on June 9 that it has granted a COA to the state of Nevada authorizing UAS flights at its FAA-designated test range, the third of six ranges required by Congress under the 2012 legislation to begin operations. Nevada secured a two-year COA to fly the catapult-launched ScanEagle at Desert Rock Airport in Mercury, Nevada, a private airport the U.S. Department of Energy owns and operates.