Prudhoe Flight First Commercial Use Over Land for UAS

June 12--The nation's the first commercial unmanned aircraft flight over land took place June 8 when a drone working for BP flew over the Prudhoe Bay oil fields.

The Federal Aviation Administration issued a certificate of authorization, or COA, to allow BP to survey pipelines, roads and other North Slope equipment, the agency announced June 10.

"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," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a formal statement.

ConocoPhillips was awarded restricted COAs last summer to fly over its offshore leases in the Chukchi Sea. They were the first COAs issued for commercial UAS operations in the country.

Unmanned aircraft systems manufacturer AeroVironment conducted the flight for BP with its Puma, a hand-launched fixed-wing UAS with a wingspan of about nine feet.

"The flight operation will use light detection and ranging 3D technology to survey the gravel roads and pads at Prudhoe Bay. This technology will help BP optimize the planning and implementation of maintenance programs for the North Slope infrastructure throughout Prudhoe Bay. Targeting maintenance activities on specific road areas will save time, and address safety and reliability," BP Alaska spokeswoman Dawn Patience wrote in a company statement.

Curt Smith, U.S. technology director for BP, said the company is seeking precision mapping of Prudhoe Bay oil field roads, which the light and range technology, or LIDAR, mounted on unmanned aerial vehicles, can provide. The goal, however, is to aid in the company's implementation of GPS-aided guidance for vehicles and equipment in the field.

BP has been testing various approaches to driver and operator assistance with GPS in the field but found that the oilfield roads were not adequately mapped.

LIDAR data, which can map surface contours to five centimeters horizontal and one-centimeter vertical accuracy, solves that problem and it is most effectively delivered from the air, with the UAV as an effective way to do that, Smith said. It's also the only way to map off-road facilities like pipelines, where truck-mounted LIDAR can't go, he said.

The procedure will also enable BP to plan rig moves from pad to pad in the field because the condition of oil field gravel roads can be surveyed, and needed repair done, before heavy, bulky rig components are moved to a new location.

Now that the system is up and running people at the field are coming up with new ideas, like using the unmanned aircraft to survey power transmission lines. "You know you have a winner (in a new technology) when people start asking, 'can it do this?" Smith said.

"Our initial goal was safety, to give vehicle operators assistance in driving during whiteouts and poor visibility but we're finding more and more uses for this," Smith said.

GPS-aided vehicle operation is commonly used in agriculture and in large surface mines but its application by BP on the North Slope will be a first.

But BP isn't ready for autonomously-controlled vehicles, at least yet, Smith said. The company will start with "driver-assisted" GPS where the operator has access to a display screen with guidance instructions.

In early May, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta made a trip to Alaska to formally open the Pan-Pacific UAS Test Range Complex operated by the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration, an extension of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

When Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act in 2012 it mandated the FAA to draft and implement regulations to integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace. The Pan-Pacific Test Range and five other sites like it across the country were formed by the agency to allow government and industry a place to safely experiment with regulations and new technology.

"The 2012 reauthorization law tasks us with integrating small UAS in the Arctic on a permanent basis. This operation will help us accomplish the goal set for us by Congress," Huerta said.

Alaska is widely considered a top test site for UAS because of its extensive uninhabited areas with relatively little air traffic. Oil and gas companies in the state have also expressed interest in the craft for surveying on and offshore leases and existing infrastructure -- a cheaper and safer means of monitoring than manned flights.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at elwood.brehmer@alaskajournal.com.

Copyright 2014 - Alaska Journal of Commerce, Anchorage

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