Prudhoe flight a first for unmanned craft

courtesy BP Alaska

BP partook in the nation’s the first commercial unmanned aircraft flight over land June 8 when it flew over Prudhoe Bay.

The Federal Aviation Administration issued a certificate of authorization, or COA, to allow BP to survey pipelines, roads and other North Slope equipment the agency announced June 10.

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

Unmanned aircraft systems manufacturer AeroVironment conducted the flight for BP with its Puma, a hand-launched fixed-wing UAS with a wingspan of about nine feet.

"The flight operation will use light detection and ranging 3D technology to survey the gravel roads and pads at Prudhoe Bay. This technology will help BP optimize the planning and implementation of maintenance programs for the North Slope infrastructure throughout Prudhoe Bay. Targeting maintenance activities on specific road areas will save time, and address safety and reliability," BP Alaska spokeswoman Dawn Patience wrote in a company statement.

In early May FAA Administrator Michael Huerta made a trip to Alaska to formally open the Pan-Pacific UAS Test Range Complex operated by the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration, an extension of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

When Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act in 2012 it mandated the FAA to draft and implement regulations to integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace. The Pan-Pacific Test Range and five other sites like it across the country were formed by the agency to allow government and industry a place to safely experiment with regulations and new technology.

“The 2012 reauthorization law tasks us with integrating small UAS in the Arctic on a permanent basis. This operation will help us accomplish the goal set for us by Congress,” Huerta said.

Alaska is widely considered a top test site for UAS because of its extensive uninhabited areas with relatively little air traffic. Oil and gas companies in the state have also expressed interest in the craft for surveying on and offshore leases and existing infrastructure — a cheaper and safer means of monitoring than manned flights.

ConocoPhillips was awarded restricted COAs last summer to fly over its offshore leases in the Chukchi Sea last summer. They were the first COAs issued for commercial UAS operations in the country.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

11/21/2016 - 3:23pm