BP Launches Drone Program in Alaska

By Dow Jones Business News, 
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BP PLC signed a five-year contract to use drones for its oil operations in Alaska, the first large-scale, government- approved commercial use of unmanned aircraft in the U.S.

BP said it has hired AeroVironment Inc. to use the California drone maker's 13.5-pound aircraft to capture and analyze data about BP's operations at its Prudhoe Bay oil field in Alaska, one of the largest oil fields in North America, including 3-D maps of its roads, pipelines and well pads there.

The operation, which began on Sunday, marks the first routine commercial drone flights in the U.S. approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, and comes amid growing excitement about the commercial market for unmanned aircraft.

The FAA has approved one other drone for commercial use, the 40-pound ScanEagle made by Boeing Co. subsidiary Insitu Inc., but that device has only been used in trial flights off the coast of Alaska by ConocoPhillips.

The FAA prohibits the commercial use of drones in the U.S. without its approval. The agency aims to propose a long- delayed rule later this year that would make it easier to operate small drones commercially. Until then, drone makers and users must complete a lengthy certification process, similar to that of manned aircraft, if they want FAA approval for commercial uses.

AeroVironment spokesman Steve Gitlin said it took about a year and considerable monetary investment to get FAA approval. "If that's what it takes to prove the commercial viability, then it's something we're committed to doing," he said.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who oversees the FAA, said in a news release that BP's use of drones is " another important step toward broader commercial use of unmanned aircraft."

Curt Smith, a director in BP's technology office, said that manned aircraft are sometimes less expensive for each flight than the AeroVironment devices, but that the drones will gather far more data, enabling BP to operate "more effectively, more safely and at a lower cost."

For instance, he said, BP relies heavily on gravel roads that it must constantly maintain. AeroVironment's Puma drones, which are hand-launched and have a 9-foot wingspan, use laser-based sensors that can pinpoint problems on the roads, identify how they should be repaired and calculate how much gravel is needed, the companies said.

The drones also can create 3-D models of gravel pits, calculate how much gravel remains and identify areas that are vulnerable to flooding. After the drones' first 3-D model of a pit there, officials overseeing it said, "That's more data in 45 minutes than we've gotten in the last 30 years," Mr. Smith said. "It's revolutionary."

The companies said they could also use the drones to monitor wildlife, ice floes and BP's infrastructure and to respond to oil spills or search-and-rescue missions.

Despite the FAA's effective ban on commercial drones, many U.S. entrepreneurs in recent months have employed the devices to make maps, film movies, inspect infrastructure and monitor crops. But BP is one of the first major companies to invest in the technology for its operations.

"We went through and thought about all the applications that we could use these for. We've got a whole list of things," said Mr. Smith of BP. Once the company vets the technology further and the regulatory landscape becomes clearer, he said, "we'll be taking [drones] to other onshore fields around the world."

Write to Jack Nicas at jack.nicas@wsj.com

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