Opinion

Green light given to BP's Alaskan operation for first commercial drone flights over land

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The largest oil field facility in North America on Alaska's North Slope will soon be patrolled in part by an unmanned aerial vehicle called the Puma.

BP PLC will begin using the drone made by AeroVironment for monitoring field operations at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, after getting approval from the Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday. This is the first time the FAA has given commercial drone flight operations over land the green light.

According to the Puma's manufacturer, AeroVironment, the drone is a small, versatile flight platform that has seen prior use by U.S. military forces. The drone has a flight time of around 3.5 hours, cruises at about 500 feet and weighs 13.5 pounds. It is built to operate in harsh weather and can land on land or water.

"BP hopes to target maintenance activities on specific roads and infrastructure, which will save time and support safety and operational reliability goals, while helping to protect the sensitive North Slope environment," a statement from the FAA says. "These surveys on Alaska's North Slope are another important step toward broader commercial use of unmanned aircraft. The technology is quickly changing, and the opportunities are growing."

Tuesday's approval from the FAA falls in line with the regulatory agency's larger plan to integrate drones into American airspace. Part of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 states that it will benefit "many communities, including scientific research, [search and rescue], environmental analysis, fisheries, marine mammal observers, oil and gas leaseholders and maritime route planners."

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