The FAA's First Commercially Approved Drone Is For Big Oil

Unless you own an oil conglomerate flying military-caliber drones over the most remote area of the entire country, this news changes nothing.

Jun 10 2014, 4:00pm
The drone the FAA just approved is mainly used by the military. Image: US Navy

The first government-approved commercial drone flight (over land) took place Sunday. This is a big, huge deal that signifies the dawn of a new era—if you own an international oil conglomerate or otherwise have access to military-grade technology and have an interest in flying it, quite literally, over one of the most remote places on Earth.

Otherwise, the fact that the Federal Aviation Administration approved a drone to monitor BP's pipelines, roads, and drilling equipment, is a blip on the map, something barely worth noting, literally the least the FAA could legally do (as mandated by Congress), and the lowest-risk move it could have possibly made.

It's a step in the right direction, sure, and it's better than the FAA not approving the drone, but AeroVironment's oil-monitoring drone is not for you and me, it's not even for most large businesses, and the permission it got from the FAA really means very, very little. 

How little? Well, a look at the map should be pretty telling. This is where Prudhoe Bay, Alaska is located:

Image: Google Maps

There's not a whole lot there, and there's not a whole lot for the drone to crash into. The drone the FAA approved to fly there, the Puma AE, costs $350,000 and is used by the United States military for battlefield surveillance and by the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration to monitor the environment. You might remember it because NOAA lost part of one of its Puma AE drones last month, when UPS misdelivered it to some college student in New York. 

In fact, AeroVironment had already been flying commercial drone missions in the area. Today, the FAA simply ever-so-slightly expanded the area in which AeroVironment can use its drone. Last July, the company became the first ever to gain FAA approval to fly the drone over the North Slope of the Arctic for oil spill monitoring and ocean surveys. That's why you're seeing the claim that this is the first commercial drone approved to be flown over land. 

“The 2012 Reauthorization law tasks us with integrating small [drones] in the Arctic on a permanent basis,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement. “This operation will help us accomplish the goal set for us by Congress.”

That means, quite literally, that approving this drone is the absolute least Congress required the FAA to do. It means nothing for the future of commercial drone integration in the contiguous 48 states, and it doesn't signal that the FAA is going to back off from the heavy-handed ways it has treated people who dare fly drones commercially without its approval

"This authorization for Alaska use was specifically demanded by Congress in the 2012 Act," Brendan Schulman, a commercial drone lawyer who is representing at least two clients in their cases against the FAA, told me. "It is not a path forward for commercial uses in general using the newer small drones that have become very popular recently. "

So, yes, this is a big deal for BP, and it's a win for AeroVironment. The drone will perform lots of important tasks for the company, and it's going to let BP, a company that made $3.2 billion last quarter, save some money. Meanwhile, hundreds of small businesses and independent commercial drone operators continue to fly in places closer to civilization, and the FAA continues to not have commercial drone regulations.