The Puma is a small, hand-launched craft about 4ft 6in long with a 9ft wingspan

US regulator permits first commercial drone flight

US federal regulators say they have granted the first permission for commercial drone flights over land.

The Federal Aviation Administration has given approval to UK energy giant BP and unmanned aircraft manufacturer AeroVironment to conduct aerial surveys of pipelines, roads and equipment at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.

Last week, the agency said it was considering giving permission to seven film-making companies to use drones, a potentially significant step that could lead to greater relaxation of the agency's ban on commercial drone use.

Transportation secretary Anthony Foxx said: "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."

The first flight, by a Puma drone made by AeroVironment, took place on Sunday. The Puma is a small, hand-launched craft about 4ft 6in long with a 9ft wingspan.

The FAA approved the use of the Puma and the ScanEagle drone, made by a Boeing subsidiary, over the Arctic Ocean last summer.

Congress directed the FAA to provide commercial drones access to US skies by September next year, but the agency's efforts to write safety rules for such flights by drones weighing 55lb or less have been slow, and it is not expected to meet the deadline.

FAA officials are on their third attempt to draft regulations acceptable to the Transportation Department and the White House.

FAA administrator Michael Huerta has said drafting such rules is complex because they must ensure that the large volume and diversity of manned aircraft in US skies are protected. Even a small drone that collided with a plane travelling at high speeds or got chewed up by helicopter rotors could cause a crash.

But as the cost of small drones has come down and their sophistication and usefulness has increased, entrepreneurs and businesses from real estate agents to wedding video makers are not waiting for government permission.

Drone industry officials have warned that the longer the FAA takes to write regulations, the more rogue commercial operators will multiply.

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles