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FAA Approves First Commercial Drone Flights Over Land

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The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration today announced that it has given approval for the first commercial drone flights over land. Energy corporation BP and unmanned aircraft systems manufacturer AeroVironment will now be able to legally fly a drone for aerial surveys over BP’s Prudhoe Bay oil field on Alaska’s North Slope.

The FAA has a long — and often confusing — history with commercial drones, which has held back many a startup that wanted to experiment with them. Now, however, the agency seems to have moved into the fast lane. First, it started working with a number of agencies to operate a number of drone test sites across the U.S. and now it is slowly moving away from sending cease and desist letters (though those will surely keep coming) to give approval for commercial operations.

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Puma drone

“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 statement today. “The technology is quickly changing, and the opportunities are growing.”

AeroVironment is using a hand-launched, 4 1/2-foot-long Puma AE drone with a wingspan of about nine feet. This specific drone can fly for up to 3 1/2 hours per charge. The same drone was previously approved by the FAA for operations over Arctic waters, together with Insitu’s Scan Eagle drone. The drone can be equipped with LiDAR or standard aerial photography equipment and will be used for 3D mapping, according to AeroVironment.

Today’s announcement is part of a larger plan (PDF) for allowing commercial drone flights in the Arctic. More importantly, though, it shows that the FAA is now moving forward with its plans to move the use of commercial drones forward. Flying over the empty Arctic is a far cry from flying in the congested New York airspace, of course, and there are plenty of challenges ahead. Surely, the FAA will continue to move very deliberately when it comes to drones, but at least there seems to be some momentum — and maybe even urgency — behind the agency’s decisions in favor of drone flights.