A century after the birth of commercial aviation, federal regulators have authorized the first commercial drone operations over domestic airspace. Energy corporation BP has partnered with AeroVironment to fly unmanned aircraft for aerial surveys in Alaska.
U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the flights are a significant milestone on the path to “broader commercial use of unmanned aircraft.”
“The technology is quickly changing, and the opportunities are growing,” Foxx said in a June 2014 statement.
Domestic drone flights have been limited to public safety and academic uses, in addition to military missions overseas and in the United States, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In 2013, the FAA issued restricted certificates for small unmanned aircraft to fly limited aerial surveillance over Arctic waters.
Now, at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, AeroVironment is flying its Puma AE aircraft, a hand-launched drone that is about 4 1/2 feet long with a 9-foot wingspan. BP hopes to improve maintenance activities on pipelines, roads and other infrastructure in the rugged North Slope environment.
The FAA also has selected six drone test sites to help the agency integrate unmanned flights into the nation’s busy airspace. The sites are in Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia.
The operators of the first commercial flight, which traveled across Tampa Bay, Florida, on New Year’s Day, 1914, probably couldn’t have imagined how the aviation industry would take off over the next 100 years. Now, more than 8 million people and 140,000 tons of cargo are piloted around the globe daily, according to the International Air Transport Association.
Federal forecasts anticipate as many as 7,500 drones could be operating by the end of the decade, and the FAA has been tasked with drawing up new regulations for drones and piloted aircraft to share the skies. Those rules are supposed to be presented to Congress by September 2015. However, a recent audit found that “significant technological barriers remain, limiting FAA’s progress in achieving safe integration.”
In addition to BP, companies across industries are eager to explore the commercial possibilities of unmanned aircraft. In June, the Motion Picture Association of America petitioned to allow drone use by movie and TV companies pending the FAA issuing final regulations.
Online retailer Amazon recently announced it was developing a delivery system called Prime Air that would use drones to get packages to customers within 30 minutes.
Safety remains a major concern. The June 2014 audit by the Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General found that the FAA is not adequately collecting or analyzing data on safety incidents.
The Washington Post has reported that nearly 50 military drones crashed in the United States between 2001 and 2013, with 23 accidents involving civilian drones since 2009.