Coming soon to an Arctic air space near you: The nation's first commercial drone flights. Billed by federal regulators as a "giant leap for unmanned kind," a pair of drones with wing spans stretching about 10 feet are expected to take to the skies over the U.S. Arctic Ocean this summer, conducting work for the oil industry.
Operating the remote controls will be private companies, including ConocoPhillips, Alaska's largest oil producer and holder of oil leases in the remote Chukchi Sea off the state's northwest coast.
Skies packed with drones?
In recent years, drones have buzzed over Alaska to monitor oil pipelines, sea lion migrations and meandering ice floes. But only manufacturers testing the technology or public entities, such as the University of Alaska Fairbanks, have been allowed to legally operate them here and elsewhere in the U.S.
Federal Aviation Administration officials said the recent commercial certification of the two crafts -- a ScanEagle and a PUMA -- allows them to be operated only above Arctic waters and only by companies that have received FAA approval.
Despite the limited permissions, the flights are an important step toward civilian drone use nationwide. In just a few years, thousands of commercially operated drones are expected to be doing everything from scientific research to search and rescues, raising privacy concerns among critics, who fear they'll be misused for spying. Supporters, meanwhile, praise the reduced environmental and safety risks, and the reduced costs, that drones offer compared to manned flights.
Congress is driving the change. It wants the unmanned aircraft integrated into U.S. airspace by September 2015. Arctic missions are a precursor to that.
In 2012, Congress established three regions in the Arctic -- the Bering Strait, portions of the Bering Sea and the Arctic Ocean -- as test grounds for commercial drone use. U.S. Sen. Mark Begich wrote the amendment to boost research and development as well as job opportunities in Alaska.
Limited traffic in Arctic
The Arctic is a good place to do that because air traffic is limited, said FAA spokesman Les Dorr.
"This is a stepping stone," said Dorr of the Alaska certificates. "We are encouraging safe integration, but it has to be done in a way that will not post hazards to manned aircraft and people and property on the ground."
It appears the ScanEagle, a drone manufactured by Boeing-owned Insitu Inc. of Bergin, Wash., will be the nation's first commercially operated drone.
Insitu has an agreement with ConocoPhillips for the operation of the ScanEagle, officials with the companies confirmed.
The ScanEagle, with a launch pad and recovery system that snags a wing on a bungee cord, costs more than $100,000, said Jill Vacek, an Insitu spokeswoman. It weighs less than 55 pounds, can soar to 19,000 feet and is able to stay aloft for 24 hours on a gallon of fuel.
Vacek called commercial certification for the drones "a fundamental milestone" in the effort to bring the aircraft into the national airspace.
ConocoPhillips is waiting for the arrival of a research ship in the Arctic before the ScanEagle can be launched above the Chukchi Sea, an FAA official said. The Houston-based oil giant holds 98 oil and gas leases in those waters, the same region where Royal Dutch Shell hopes to discover a massive pool of undersea oil.
Tracking Chukchi ice
Federal geologists estimate the area contains 12 billion barrels of recoverable oil, but exploration efforts have been put on hold this summer and possibly next, too. The work has been confounded by a number of factors, including brutal weather conditions and a massive ice floe that forced Shell's drilling rig to temporarily stop exploration.
The ScanEagle will allow Conoco to track such ice movement in the Chukchi, the FAA said. It will also be used to assess whale and other marine mammal migrations.
Amy Burnett, a Conoco spokeswoman in Alaska, confirmed that Conoco has been working with the FAA on "regulatory and safety aspects of this technology. We are in the final stages of evaluating how we can use the Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) within our operations and will likely be able to share more later this summer," she said.
As for the PUMA, it is expected to be flown over the Beaufort Sea, located off the coast of northeast Alaska, to support "emergency response crews for oil spill monitoring and wildlife surveillance over the Beaufort Sea," the FAA said.
Its manufacturer, AeroVironment of Monroe, Calif., has no commercial operator lined up to use it, so it's not yet known when the PUMA will be in civilian service, an FAA official said.
An AeroVironment spokeperson could not immediately be reached.
Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com