FAA approves first commercial unmanned flights over land

June 11, 2014

The FAA has approved commercial operations of the hand-launched Puma AE over Alaska. Courtesy AeroVironment, Inc.

The FAA has granted approval for the first commercial unmanned aircraft system (UAS) flights over land, the agency announced June 10.

The Puma AE, a hand-launched aircraft with a wingspan of nine feet, will survey roads and infrastructure at the oilfield in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, for energy corporation BP. AeroVironment performed the first flight for BP on June 8.

While the FAA has issued hundreds of certificates of authorization for public UAS for missions such as law enforcement and search and rescue, it only authorizes commercial operations on a case-by-case basis. Insitu’s Scan Eagle was authorized to fly over Arctic waters for ConocoPhillips in September 2013, but no over-land operations had been authorized before now.

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

The Puma AE in flight in Alaska. Courtesy AeroVironment, Inc.

The 2012 FAA reauthorization tasks the agency with safely integrating unmanned aircraft into the National Airspace System, and the FAA has said it will start the regulatory rulemaking process for integrating small unmanned aircraft in 2014. AOPA has long advocated for safe integration of UAS that will protect manned flights.

According to an FAA resource clarifying the agency’s policy on UAS, commercial unmanned flights require a certified aircraft, certificated pilot, and operating approval. The Puma and Scan Eagle were issued restricted category type certificates in the summer of 2013.

The Puma AE will survey Alaskan roads and infrastructure for energy corporation BP. Courtesy AeroVironment, Inc.
Sarah Deener

Sarah Deener | Editor – Web, AOPA

AOPA Editor – Web Sarah Deener has worked for AOPA since 2009 and has been a private pilot since 2011.