THE US Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration has given the green light for energy giant BP to use unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), commonly known as drones, to undertake aerial surveys in Alaska.

It is a landmark move by the FAA, given it is the first time the administration has authorised a commercial UAS operation over land. It is understood the FAA gave approval for an unmanned drone flight to ConocoPhillips last year which only flew over water.

Under the approval, BP will be able to fly an AeroVironment Puma AE for the aerial surveys.

It comes after BP selected AeroVironment to provide mapping, Geographic Information System (GIS) and other commercial information services at its Prudhoe Bay oilfield, the largest oilfield in North America, for a five-year period.

“These surveys on Alaska’s North Slope are another important step toward broader commercial use of unmanned aircraft,” Transportation secretary Anthony Foxx said.

“The technology is quickly changing, and the opportunities are growing.”

The FAA issued a Certificate of Waiver or Authorisation to survey BP pipelines, roads and equipment at Prudhoe Bay, AK, the largest oilfield in the United States. AeroVironment performed the first f light for BP on 8 June.

The Puma AE is a small, hand-launched UAS that has a wingspan of 9 feet.

Using the information generated by the Puma’s sensors, BP hopes to target maintenance activities on specific roads and infrastructure, which will save time and support safety and operational reliability goals, while helping to protect the sensitive North Slope environment.

Last summer, the FAA issued restricted category type certificates to the Puma and Insitu’s Scan Eagle, another small UAS.

The certificates were limited to aerial surveillance only over Arctic waters. The FAA recently modified the data sheet of the Puma’s restricted category type certificate to allow operations over land after AeroVironment showed that the Puma could perform such flights safely.

“The 2012 Reauthorisation law tasks us with integrating small UAS in the Arctic on a permanent basis,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said.

“This operation will help us accomplish the goal set for us by Congress.”

AeroVironment chairman and chief executive Tim Conver said this solution would help BP manage its extensive Prudhoe Bay field operations in a way that enhances safety and protects the environment.

“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,” he said.

“This is an important achievement for our joint team and for the industry in demonstrating the safe and effective use of our proven UAS technology for commercial applications.”