ConocoPhillips Alaska recently made aviation history with the first approved commercial use of an unmanned aircraft, or drone, in the United States.
The flight took place on Sept. 12 in remote airspace over the Chukchi Sea about 120 miles offshore from the village of Wainwright, the company said.
The drone is known as the ScanEagle, from Insitu Inc., a subsidiary of The Boeing Co. The Federal Aviation Administration in July cleared the ScanEagle and another drone model to fly commercially.
The aircraft is small, weighing about 40 pounds, and can fly up to 18 hours on a gallon and a half of fuel, ConocoPhillips said.
The aircraft was launched from the research vessel Westward Wind, managed and operated by Olgoonik Fairweather LLC. The FAA said four ScanEagle planes were aboard the boat, along with FAA inspector Jay Skaggs. The ScanEagle "zoomed off a catapult and into the rainy Arctic skies," completing a successful 36-minute flight, the FAA said.
The boat captured the aircraft and the mission was complete, the agency said.
The FAA said the flight is just the start of a plan, mandated by Congress, to establish permanent Arctic areas where small unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, can operate for research and commercial purposes. The plan includes developing protocols to operate the aircraft beyond line of sight.
The proposed Arctic flight areas are ideal because of the low population and low levels of air and ship traffic, the FAA said.
"Small UAS in the Arctic can benefit many operations, such as scientific research, search and rescue, fisheries, marine mammal observers, oil and gas leaseholders and maritime route planners," the agency said.
As early as October 2012, the FAA said, ConocoPhillips had expressed an interest in flying unmanned aircraft for its marine mammal and ice surveys. The agency and the oil company ended up signing an agreement.
ConocoPhillips has offshore oil and gas leases in the Chukchi Sea, and aims to conduct exploratory drilling after 2014.
"Controlled by a UAS pilot on the Westward Wind, the ScanEagle sent real-time video and telemetry to the ground control system on the vessel," ConocoPhillips said.
The flight successfully tested the ScanEagle sensor payload and navigation system, said the company, which plans to share flight data with the FAA, academia and the energy industry.
"Airborne surveillance is often a component of offshore projects," said Trond-Erik Johansen, president of ConocoPhillips Alaska. "The UAS could be useful in our monitoring and data collection efforts, with the benefit of improved safety and lower noise levels as compared to using manned aircraft.
By WESLEY LOY