BP’s Unmanned First in USA

BP have commenced the first commercial use of an Unmanned Air Systems (UAS) over land in the US.  Contractor AeroVironment performed the first flight for BP in Alaska on 8 June 2014 under a ‘Certificate of Waiver’ approval from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).  While commercial UAS are in use in other countries this is a major first in the US, where the FAA have been facing massive criticism for dragging their heels on regulating commercial UAS use.

The UAS in question is a 6.1kg, battery powered, fixed wing AeroVironment Puma AE (All Environment).  The Puma AE is operated by a crew of two and can operated out to a radius of 15kms with an endurance up to 3.5 hours.  It is in US military service as the RQ-20A.

Puma AE (Credit: AeroVironment)

BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc plan to survey pipelines, roads and equipment in and around Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.  The company defined its mapping needs for the remote Alaska North Slope last year and issued a request for information in June 2013 to multiple geographic information system (GIS), manned and unmanned aircraft systems companies, selecting AeroVironment for the a proof of concept demonstration.  For this contract the Puma AE will be equipped with either a custom integrated LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) or its standard electro-optical and infrared sensor payload.

BP Puma (Predit: BP Magazine)

Tim Conver, AeroVironment CEO said:

Thanks to the FAA’s rigorous, safety-focused certification process for UAS, BP and AeroVironment have launched a safer, better and more cost-effective solution for managing critical infrastructure and resources. 

BP’s forward-thinking embrace of UAS technology enabled AeroVironment to deliver a comprehensive approach for generating, processing and converting data collected by portable UAS into actionable information that provides tangible economic and operational advantages.  Integrated into BP’s routine operations, this new solution is now helping BP manage its extensive Prudhoe Bay field operations in a way that enhances safety, protects the environment, improves productivity and accomplishes activities never before possible.

It is reported that:

In one application, surveying the 200 miles of roadways built to support North Slope activities is critical to the effective operation of the Prudhoe Bay field.  Drill rigs that traverse the roadways span up to 28 feet wide, 132 feet long and weigh up to 3.5 million pounds, with a driver at each end.  The highly accurate LiDAR-produced maps delivered by AeroVironment’s Puma AE, along with precision GPS guidance systems, assist drivers in keeping moving drill rigs centered on the roadways, even in low visibility conditions. 

In 2013 FAA issued restricted category aircraft type (RCAT) certificates for Puma AE and a the larger Insitu ScanEagle for use over water only.  The ScanEagle trials, for ConocoPhillips as part of a whale watching project in the Chukchi Sea, were of limited success as the vehicle ditched after its second flight.

More Details

Watch a video of the Puma AE here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LrdlUwGXQqI

FAA press release: http://www.faa.gov/news/press_releases/news_story.cfm?newsId=16354

AeroVironment press release: http://www.avinc.com/resources/press_release/bp-and-aerovironment-launch-first-faa-approved-commercial-unmanned-aircraft

UPDATE November 2014: BP has since issued this article, primarily on operations in Alaska, which noted that:

Elsewhere, UAVs are helping BP’s exploration team to produce cost-effective 3D models of onshore outcrops in Azerbaijan. At its site in Hull, UK, the unmanned Cyberhawk ‘octocopter’ has helped to assess the integrity of a 100-metre (330-foot) cooling tower, removing the need for scaffolding and people working at height.

Aerossurance has experience in UAS going back to the mid 1990s.  If you want to discuss the safety, operational and economic issues with selecting and operating Unmanned Air Systems, contact Aerossurance at: enquiries@aerossurance.com