BP, the international oil and energy giant, will now routinely use drones to patrol their Alaskan oil fields. This morning, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that BP and unmanned aircraft manufacturer AeroVironment received permission to use drones for flyovers of the Prudhoe Bay oil field. AeroVironment’s primary product, a four-foot-long vehicle called the Puma, resembles an overgrown model aircraft and contains sophisticated electro-optical and infrared sensors for ground surveillance.
For the past few years, BP has been testing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as a way to monitor their oil fields and pipelines in Prudhoe Bay. With very few nearby residents and little air traffic, Prudhoe Bay poses few logistical or safety hazards. Because BP is still reeling from the negative effects of the Deepwater Horizon spill, testing drones in Alaska is a relatively risk-free way of exploring the feasibility of more widespread use. The video below shows BP’s experiments with another drone, the Aeryon Scout, in Prudhoe Bay in 2012.
Anthony Foxx, U.S. Secretary of Transportation, said in a statement that "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." In early 2014, a ruling by the National Transportation Safety Board effectively legalized commercial drones, and for the past few years the FAA has been working on a strategy to integrate them into America’s airspace, but the NTSB’s court decision sent the FAA into a hyperspeed approval process.
BP says that their single Puma drone will be used for monitoring specific maintenance activities on roads, oil pipelines, and other infrastructure. Industry publication Oil & Gas Financial Journal added that the UAV is designed to aggregate data for BP, including integrating photographs and sensor information into 3-D models of roads, pads, and pipelines, along with precision volumetric measurement, and topographic analysis of the company’s gravel pits.
The Prudhoe Bay oil drone is an early example of what is likely to be a steady stream of approvals for commercial UAVs to be put into use over the next few months in thinly populated regions nationwide. Last year, the FAA unveiled five testing sites for commercial drones in Alaska, North Dakota, Nevada, rural Virginia, and upstate New York. Because UAVs can easily be equipped with a variety of sensors that can monitor everything from fungal growth in agriculture to heat signatures in factories, they’re expected to generate a flood of data, something that has created enough problems for the military sphere that the Navy is considering a switch to cloud storage. Similar challenges for commercial entities like Monsanto that are interested in UAVs could result as well.
BP began use of their Prudhoe Bay drone for commercial purposes on June 8, two days before the formal FAA announcement.
[Image: Flickr user Malcolm Matters]