The Drones Are Coming

In February of 2012, Congress passed a spending bill for the Federal Aviation Administration that would, in addition to allocating $63.4 billion for modernizing the U.S.’s air traffic control systems, expand airspace for unmanned aircraft by September 2015. At the time, UAVs were approved only for military and government uses (with some 300 public agencies approved to operate drones at low altitudes and away from airports). The new law, the AP put it at the time, would permit "unmanned drones controlled by remote operators on the ground to fly in the same airspace as airliners, cargo planes, business jets, and private aircraft." Today, that vision of a more expansive airspace has gotten a little closer to reality. The FAA issued its first permit for commercial drone flights over land. The recipient of that permit? The oil company BP. The permission was granted, ostensibly, so that BP—using the Puma AE drone, a small craft originally designed for military use—can conduct aerial surveys of Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay, the largest oil field in the U.S. (The surveys will pay particular attention, according to a memo, to the area’s roadways, pipelines, and other oil-processing equipment.) More broadly, though, the permission was granted as an explicit step toward opening up the skies to unmanned aircraft. This is a permit in the narrow sense, but also in the broad one. As Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx put it in a statement, "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." And those are opportunities for businesses. The Obama administration has considered offering a "streamlined" approval process for low-risk commercial use of drones (farming, say, and filmmaking). It is also considering giving permissions to seven different aerial filmmaking companies that use drones in their photography. And in May, the FAA announced the certification of a site in North Dakota for testing the Draganflyer X4ES, a camera-equipped quadcopter. The site, the FAA pointed out at the time, will not only allow for the gathering of safety and maintenance data on the drones; it will also, it said, help the agency to develop rules for UAV operation.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s