Drone at Prudhoe Bay makes first FAA-authorized unmanned commercial flight over land

Zaz Hollander

A 13-pound, battery-powered drone catapulted from a Prudhoe Bay gravel pit on Sunday has become the first authorized commercial operation by an unmanned aircraft over land in the United States.

The historic flight was the result of new permission from the Federal Aviation Administration. The agency is under a congressional mandate to expand the use of drones throughout the country, with Alaska playing a key role. Unmanned aircraft are joining the commercial sector as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down and manufacturers go in search of new civilian contracts.

The Puma AE, manufactured by California-based AeroVironment, will buzz over the North Slope courtesy of a five-year contract with BP.

The energy giant paid an undisclosed amount for the unmanned aircraft, with plans to use it to survey more than 200 miles of gravel road, well pads, a gravel pit and the 1,300 miles of pipelines at Prudhoe Bay.

The addition of LiDAR technology -- remote sensors that use laser pulses to create 3D images -- allows the drone to "paint" high-resolution maps of the ground from 200 feet up, said Curt Smith, BP's technology director. "Which is way better than the old way of doing it."

The Puma, which can be hand-launched, has a 9-foot wingspan and is about 4 1/2 feet long. It was originally designed for military reconnaissance.

BP plans to put it to work scoping out maintenance issues on gravel roads as well as doing volumetric analysis at a gravel pit to help BP more efficiently meet state permit requirements, Smith said.

Drill rigs up to 132 feet long and 28 feet wide, weighing up to 3.5 million pounds, travel the gravel roads with a driver at each end. The maps delivered by the Puma AE should help drivers keep the rigs centered on the road, "even in low-visibility conditions," AeroVironment said in a news release issued Tuesday.

The unmanned aircraft will also scan Prudhoe Bay's network of pipelines, built on permafrost and prone to frost heaves that force up steel supports, necessitating repairs to make sure the pipe doesn't topple, Smith said. Until now, BP sent survey crews to check each pylon. It took five to seven days to finish two miles.

"The Puma can do a two-mile section in 30 minutes and it's much, much cheaper," he said.

The FAA issued a certificate of authorization in late May granting permission for the unmanned aircraft to survey BP infrastructure over land at Prudhoe, the largest oilfield in the country.

The federal permission comes with some conditions. The FAA certificate for the BP operation includes a requirement that air traffic controllers in Anchorage coordinate flights and a waiver from general altitude limits to let the drone fly as low as 200 feet, agency spokesman Les Dorr said.

Ground-based pilots from AeroVironment also need to keep a "line of sight" on the Puma at all times, BP's Smith said. The company will notify pilots -- there are about 60 flights a day in the area -- of when and where the drone is flying.

The FAA granted approval last year for aerial surveillance missions over the waters of northern Alaska's Arctic. The ScanEagle -- a drone made by Boeing-owned Insitu Inc. of Bergin, Wash. -- last summer scanned the Chukchi Sea for ConocoPhillips, tracking ice movement and migrations by whales and other marine mammals.

Those were the first authorized commercial drone flights in the country; Sunday's flight marks the first authorized commercial flight over land.

The spike in unmanned aircraft activity over Alaska comes courtesy of Congress and a 2012 bill modernizing the FAA. Language inserted by U.S. Sen. Mark Begich targeted new research and commercial applications in Alaska with provisions for airspace from the Aleutian Islands to the North Slope.

Boosters say Alaska's wide-open spaces and numerous applications for the technology make it the perfect place to expand unmanned aircraft systems. Regular people use them too. They're for sale on Amazon; a Parrot AR.Drone quadricopter will set you back $349.

But enough Alaskans have expressed concerns about increased use of drones here that state legislators formed a task force to address privacy and other issues.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco nonprofit created to safeguard civil liberties in the digital era, is tracking the FAA changes.

"This particular application of the technology seems pretty innocuous, but it also raises a lot of questions. With any low-flying camera drone project, there are privacy and safety issues," foundation spokesman Parker Higgins said in an email. "Those issues might not be as prevalent in more rural or remote areas, but the FAA mechanism for granting permits isn't really equipped to take that into account."

The energy industry in the Arctic has a keen interest in future uses of unmanned aircraft. The possibility of a potentially disastrous oil spill is chief among the concerns about Arctic exploration. Drones can help monitor offshore oil activities and their impacts on marine mammals like whales, seals, walrus and polar bears, a Shell spokesman said last year.

Other industries in other places are stepping forward too. Seven aerial photo and video production companies have asked for regulatory exemptions, according to the FAA. Companies involved in precision agriculture, power line and pipeline inspection, and oil and gas flare stack inspection are also considering exemption requests.

Alaska is becoming a hub for unmanned aircraft activity. Along with a recent flurry of energy-related flights, the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration at the University of Alaska Fairbanks late last year become one of six federally approved national unmanned aircraft test sites.

Unmanned aircraft affiliated with the program last month scanned the big Kenai Peninsula wildfire for hot spots. Last year, they conducted search-andrescue training near Bethel and dropped sea-temperature buoys 300 miles off Oliktok Point on the North Slope. Camera-equipped drones helped guide a Russian oil tanker into Nome during the winter of 2011-12.

The university program is even developing a drone of its own: a $10,000 hexacopter dubbed Ptarmigan that's designed for tasks like mapping, wildlife surveys and search-and-rescue.

"We're trying to convey to the world that unmanned aircraft have a nonlethal, beneficial use," said Ro Bailey, the center's deputy director. "We picked the least-threatening bird name we could come up with."

Reach Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com or (907) 352-6705.