In an effort to ease restrictions on commercial drone use in the US, the Federal Aviation Administration for the first time has granted permission for a commercial drone to fly over land.
The government agency has permitted oil company BP and drone manufacturer AeroVironment to fly unmanned aircrafts over Prudhoe Bay in Alaska, which is home to North America's largest oil field. The drone-maker said it was awarded a five-year contract with BP.
The Puma AE, a hand-launched drone that is about 4½ feet long with a wingspan of 9 feet, will be used to survey pipelines, roads, and equipment for BP. AeroVironment flew the drone on its first commercial flight Sunday.
"These surveys on Alaska's North Slope are another important step toward broader commercial use of unmanned aircraft", Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said. "The technology is quickly changing, and the opportunities are growing".
With a battery life of 3.5 hours, the small aircraft typically flies less than 45 mph between 200 and 400 feet off the ground. It can capture images and data that can then be processed into 3D computerized models.
Until now the FAA has approved drones for public safety, such as for policing, or for academic research, on a case-by-case basis.
Earlier, the government agency had permitted the Puma and Insitu's Scan Eagle, another small drone, to fly over Arctic waters, but yesterday's announcement came after AeroVironment showed that the Puma could perform such flights safely.
The news comes nearly a week after the FAA said it's considering giving permission to seven movie and television filming companies to use drones for aerial photography.