BP launches first FAA-approved commercial drones over Alaska land

HOUSTON — BP  has launched a landmark drone program in Alaska after winning the first federal approval to fly unmanned aerial vehicles over land for commercial purposes.

Working with drone-maker AeroVironment, BP is using the drones to survey pipelines, roads and equipment near Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay, the Federal Aviation Administration said in its announcement.

The first flight was made on Sunday. BP is using the Puma AE, a smaller drone about 4.5 feet long with a wingspan of 9 feet. The device is launched by hand — as opposed to specially designed equipment — and has sensors that BP hopes will help it determine which types of roads and other infrastructure need maintenance.

“These surveys on Alaska’s North Slope are another important step toward broader commercial use of unmanned aircraft,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement. “The technology is quickly changing, and the opportunities are growing.”

The announcement is significant, since previous authorization from the FAA has limited the use of commercial drones over water in Arctic Alaska. The agency said it recently modified rules regarding the Puma after AeroVironment shows that it could be flown over land safely.

The FAA also — until now — has allowed the use of drones for government public safety services as well as for research. In the past, the energy industry has frequently partnered with universities on drone test flights. AeroVironment, for example, previously demonstrated its services in the region last year using an authorization granted through the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Video: Drones give energy companies high hopes for safer work 

AeroVironment said today that BP has hired the company to provide mapping, Geographic Information System data and other services in Prudhoe Bay for a five-year period.

AeroVironment says the drone can fly low (200 feet to 400 feet above ground) and slow (less than 50 miles per hour), which helps it to gather accurate data. The aircraft can fly about 3.5 hours on its battery.

“Integrated into BP’s routine operations, this new solution is now helping BP manage its extensive Prudhoe Bay field operations in a way that enhances safety, protects the environment, improves productivity and accomplishes activities never before possible,” AeroVironment Chairman and CEO Tim Conver said in a written statement.