The Federal Aviation Administration has just approved oil giant BP’s (NYSE: BP) plan to use drones for conducting surveys of oil fields in Alaska, the first permit in history allowing commercial unmanned aircraft to operate over U.S. land.
The drones are meant for aerial surveys and three-dimensional mapping of pipelines, operational infrastructure, roads and well pads in BP’s Prudhoe Bay oil fields. Drones are preferred to manned aircraft as they catalogue vast amounts of data at a lower cost; for instance, a drone’s laser-based sensor can quickly and precisely pinpoint flaws in gravel roads that are crucial for BP. Although drone makers and users still need to undergo a lengthy certification process, The FAA’s newest approval marks an official stamp on the increasing prominence of unmanned aircraft in broader, non-military fields.
BP’s plan will be the first routine commercial drone operation in the United States. The company has signed a five-year contract with AeroVironment Inc (NASDAQ: AVAV), a Monrovia drone maker that will be using its small drone Puma AE to monitor oil fields. AeroVironment is currently the top supplier of small drones to the Pentagon, yet has been aiming to move into the commercial arena since the United States has been pulling troops out of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
A statement from AeroVironment CEO Timothy E. Conver is as follows: “This is an important achievement for our joint team and for the industry in demonstrating the safe and effective use of our proven UAS technology for commercial applications.”
Drones, though admittedly controversial, are beginning to seep into a variety of commercial markets. Besides oil and gas companies that are using the technology for surveying infrastructure, the entertainment industry wants to use drones for filming action scenes while delivery services see drones as a possible method of efficiently transporting goods. Yet the FAA remains cautious about granting permits in highly populated areas; as with other newly developing technology, its societal implications are yet to be fully realized.