Conoco in landmark Alaska drone flight

Ed Crooks
Jim Watson | AFP | Getty Images

The first ever commercial drone flight in US-controlled airspace has been carried out by ConocoPhillips, the oil and gas group, in the remote Arctic waters off the north coast of Alaska.

Conoco launched a 40-lb ScanEagle surveillance drone, built by Boeing, from a research ship in the Chukchi Sea, about 120 miles from the Alaskan coast.

The company said this month's 36-minute flight was intended to test the drone's sensors and navigation system, and help streamline the approval process for future flights in US airspace.

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Although brief, it was a landmark in the progress of civil operations by unmanned airborne systems, as drones are known in the industry.

Although ScanEagle flew in international airspace, it was in a section that is managed by the US Federal Aviation Administration for the International Civil Administration Organisation.

Drones Becoming Big Business

Last year Congress instructed the FAA to set up test sites for the commercial and government use of drones in US airspace, and set a target of 2015 for their integration into the national air traffic control system.

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The FAA has chosen three blocks over international waters as the first such test sites, including the region of the Chukchi Sea used by Conoco.

The ScanEagle, built by Boeing's drone subsidiary Insitu, has a 10-foot wingspan and a propeller engine that makes it sound like a model aircraft in flight, and can fly for 18 hours on 1.5 gallons of fuel, sending live video back to its controller. Insitu describes it as delivering "persistent imagery on land or at sea at a fraction of the cost of other surveillance methods". It has been used by the US military since 2004.

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Conoco said ScanEagles could be used to monitor ice floes and whale movements, keeping it informed of potential threats or environmental risks while drilling in Arctic seas.

The company said in April that it was putting on hold its plans to drill in the Chukchi Sea in 2014, after Royal Dutch Shell suffered a series of problems in the Arctic, but said it was confident of its ability to operate in the region safely.

Trond-Erik Johansen, president, ConocoPhillips Alaska, said airborne surveillance was often a component of offshore projects, and drones "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".

The company is now looking at plans for possible additional flights, and considering other applications for drones. One proposal in the oil industry has been to use them to scan pipelines for spills or other problems.

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The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a US industry group, believes that agriculture and public safety will together account for about 90 per cent of the commercial and civil drone market, with the rest coming from industries such as power distribution, television news and oil and gas.

The FAA has said safety is its top priority.

Ray LaHood, then transportation secretary, said last year that the planned drone test sites would "help us ensure that our high safety standards are maintained as the use of these aircraft becomes more widespread".

In a blog post this week, the agency said the Conoco project was "giving the FAA and industry needed experience and a path forward to certify UAS for more commercial operations, both in the Arctic and elsewhere."