FAA clears way for use of drones by oil industry off Alaska


By WESLEY LOY — Petroleum News

Unmanned aircraft soon could be working for the oil industry in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska.

In an action hailed as an aviation milestone, the Federal Aviation Administration has issued “restricted category type certificates” to a pair of unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS. The action “will lead to the first approved commercial UAS operations later this summer,” the FAA said.

Unmanned aircraft, which fly by remote control, often are called drones.

The newly certified UAS include the ScanEagle X200 from Insitu Inc., a Bingen, Wash., subsidiary of The Boeing Co., and the Puma AE from AeroVironment Inc., headquartered in Monrovia, Calif.

“A major energy company plans to fly the ScanEagle off the Alaska coast in international waters starting in August,” the FAA said. “Plans for the initial ship-launched flights include surveys of ocean ice floes and migrating whales in Arctic oil exploration areas. The Puma is expected to support emergency response crews for oil spill monitoring and wildlife surveillance over the Beaufort Sea.”

That major energy company is ConocoPhillips.

Natalie Lowman, spokeswoman for ConocoPhillips Alaska Inc., sounded somewhat less definitive than the FAA about the company’s use of unmanned aircraft.

“We’re not quite ready to go into full talk mode about it,” she told Petroleum News on Aug. 20.

“We’ve been working with the FAA on the regulatory and safety aspects of this UAS technology,” Lowman added. “We’re trying to evaluate how we can use it in our operations.”

ConocoPhillips presently has offshore oil and gas leases in the Chukchi Sea, but not in the Beaufort Sea.

In April, the company announced it was putting its 2014 Chukchi Sea exploratory drilling plans on hold due to “the uncertainties of evolving federal regulatory requirements and operational permitting standards.”

The FAA-certified unmanned aircraft are quite small, each about 4½ feet long with wingspans of 10 feet or less, the agency said.

The aircraft are now available for commercial use, which is a significant step.

“Until now, obtaining an experimental airworthiness certificate – which specifically excludes commercial operations – was the only way the private sector could operate UAS in the nation’s airspace,” the FAA said.

Previous military acceptance of the ScanEagle and Puma designs factored into the FAA issuing the certificates.

Aviation International News reported online July 22 that the FAA had “signed a cooperative agreement with ConocoPhillips that authorizes the energy company to operate a catapult-launched Boeing ScanEagle UAS from one of its exploratory ships” to monitor ice floes.

The other UAS company, AeroVironment, issued its own press release on the FAA certification.

“The first-of-its-kind certificate permits operators to fly Puma for commercial missions, such as oil spill monitoring and ocean surveys, in the North Slope region of the Arctic,” AeroVironment said.

“AeroVironment expects Puma AE to be deployed later this summer to support emergency response crews for oil spill monitoring and wildlife observation off the coast of the Beaufort Sea in the Arctic Circle,” the company said.

Unmanned aircraft can offer significant cost savings and convenience to industry, the company said.

“Aerial observation missions can now be safely accomplished in hazardous Arctic locations, which will reduce the risk of manned aviation in an efficient, cost-effective and environmentally friendly manner,” said Tim Conver, AeroVironment chief executive.

The 13-pound Puma AE is battery-operated, quiet enough to fly at low altitude without disturbing animals, and doesn’t require infrastructure such as runways or recovery devices, AeroVironment said.

“This marks the first time the FAA has approved a hand-launched unmanned aircraft system for commercial missions,” the company said.

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