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Drones Approved: FAA Gives OK To First Commercial Use Over Land

A 2011 photo shows an AeroVironment Puma drone being prepared for launch by University of Alaska researchers. The FAA says it approved BP's use of the drone to survey oil fields in Alaska.
Keith Cunningham

The Federal Aviation Administration says it has issued the first permit in its history for an unmanned aircraft to fly over U.S. soil. Oil company BP will use a drone from the company AeroVironment to conduct surveys in Alaska.

The first drone flights under the recently issued waiver have already taken place, the FAA says.

From the agency's news release:

"The FAA issued a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization to survey BP pipelines, roads and equipment at Prudhoe Bay, AK, the largest oilfield in the United States. AeroVironment performed the first flight for BP on June 8.

"The Puma AE is a small, hand-launched UAS that is about 4 1/2 feet long and has a wingspan of 9 feet. Using the information generated by the Puma's sensors, 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."

The drone being used is an AeroVironment Puma AE, which the company says "is quiet to avoid detection and operates autonomously, providing persistent intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and targeting data (ISRT)."

The waterproof drone's sensors include optical and infrared cameras; it's suitable for both civilian and military uses, the company says.

Drones have been creeping toward wider use in American skies in recent years. An NPR story and video recently looked at The Fight Over Drones, As Seen From A Drone. And the use of drones in films has created a new industry.

The snag has been that while civilians are able to operate drones within altitude limits, it's illegal to use them for commercial purposes. That distinction grounded a fledgling beer drone delivery service in Wisconsin.

The FAA is allowing drones to be used at six public test sites around the U.S., as the agency works on rules that would cover navigation and operator standards and certification, as well as other regulations.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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