[Avionics Today June 12, 2014] The FAA made major progress with its ongoing progress regarding the integration of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) into the National Airspace System this week (NAS). Energy company BP and UAS manufacturer AeroVironment have been granted a Certificate of Authorization (COA) to use unmanned aircraft for aerial surveillance of BP pipelines, roads and equipment at Prudhoe, Alaska, the largest oilfield in the United States.
This is the first time UAS have been approved to perform routing commercial applications over land in compliance with FAA regulations. AeroVironment's Puma AE, a small, hand-launched UAS will be used to provide the surveillance. BP is using the information generated by the Puma's sensors to provide three dimensional models of pipelines and roads as well as topographic analysis of gravel pits at the North Slope field in Alaska.
"BP’s forward-thinking embrace of UAS technology enabled AeroVironment to deliver a comprehensive approach for generating, processing and converting data collected by portable UAS into actionable information that provides tangible economic and operational advantages," said Tim Conver, chairman and CEO of AeroVironment. "Integrated into BP’s routine operations, this new solution is now helping BP manage its extensive Prudhoe Bay field operations in a way that enhances safety, protects the environment, improves productivity and accomplishes activities never before possible.”
AeroVironment first demonstrated the use of the Puma AE UAS's ability to perform aerial mapping and inspection at Prudhoe Bay in September 2013. The company integrated a LiDAR sensor payload into the battery-powered Puma to provide a comprehensive data collection, processing and reporting solution.
Using the Puma to fly at low altitudes of 200 to 400 feet above ground level at speeds of less than 40 knots, operators can survey the Prudhoe Bay infrastructure with "highly accurate location analytics," according to AeroVironment. One such application involved generating LiDAR-produced maps of the 200 miles of roadways to support North Slope activities to assist drivers moving drill rigs centered on the roadways in low visibility conditions.
Approval from the FAA for the operation shows that the agency is responding to increasing pressure from the UAS industry for more rapid approval of commercial operations. Recently, the FAA stated it is currently considering granting regulatory exemptions for the use of UAS by the film and television industry for photo and video production.
“These surveys on Alaska’s North Slope are another important step toward broader commercial use of unmanned aircraft,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “The technology is quickly changing, and the opportunities are growing.”