BP launches Alaska drone program

Puma AE unmanned aircraft system (UAS) at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.The US Federal Aviation Administration announced approval for the first commercial drone flights over land in the US and the start of operations in Alaska earlier this week.

BP plc signed a five-year contract to use drones for its oil operations in Alaska, the first large-scale, government-approved commercial use of unmanned aircraft above US soil.

The operator has hired California-based AeroVironment Inc. to supply and operate its 13.5-pound Puma AE aircraft on the North Slope.

Photo at right from AeroVironment, Alaska.

The Puma AE (all environment) is a battery-operated drone that must be launched by hand, about 4.5ft long, with a wingspan of 9ft. AeroVironment says it typically flies about 45mi/hr, between 200 and 400ft above the ground.

The task is to capture and analyze data about BP’s operations at its Prudhoe Bay oil field in Alaska, one of the largest oil fields in North America. The drones will survey and provide 3D maps of roads, pipelines and well pads.

The flights at Prudhoe Bay began on Sunday, 8 June.

Over-water flights, 2013

BP's current project closely follows the first commercial flights over US waters last year, when the FAA approved unmanned aircraft flights over the Chukchi Sea.

ConocoPhillips Alaska had sought to use unmanned drones as early as October 2012 to assist with its marine mammal and ice surveys. The Arctic flight areas were ideal for test flights for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) because of the low population and low levels of air and ship traffic, the FAA said when approving them in July 2013.

The first flight took place on 12 Sept 2013, in remote airspace over the Chukchi Sea, about 120 miles offshore from Wainwright, Alaska, and utilized the ScanEagle aircraft from Insitu Inc., a subsidiary of The Boeing Co. The ScanEagle weighs about 40lb and can fly as long as 18hr on 1.5 gallons of fuel.

The drone was launched from the RV Westward Wind, operated by Olgoonik Fairweather LLC. An FAA inspector was on board to watch the first 36-min. flight.

ConocoPhillips said the plane was controlled by a UAS pilot aboard the Westward Wind, and "the ScanEagle sent real-time video and telemetry to the ground control system on the vessel."

"Airborne surveillance is often a component of offshore projects," said Trond-Erik Johansen, president of ConocoPhillips Alaska. "The UAS could be useful in our monitoring and data collection efforts, with the benefit of improved safety and lower noise levels as compared to using manned aircraft."

Earlier this week, Rosneft and ExxonMobil completed a research survey in the Russian Arctic that involved the use of unmanned aircraft.

No surprise then, that there is growing excitement about the commercial market for unmanned aircraft.

Video: Unmanned aerial system deployed at BP Alaska, June 2014

Read more:

Rosneft completes Laptev, Kara Sea ice expedition, 10 June 2014

Shell chooses Endeavor for Chukchi advising, 1 April 2014

Shell drops Alaska plan, 30 Jan 2014

ConocoPhillips suspends Arctic program, 10 April 2013

Shell halts Arctic program, 28 Feb 2013

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