Conoco Flies First Commercial Drone in US Airspace

Alicé Leuchte | September 25, 2013

The “first ever commercial drone flight in US-controlled airspace” was launched from a research vessel by ConocoPhillips off the coast of Alaska.  While the 36-minute flight in the Chukchi Sea took place over international waters, the US controls the airspace over the region.

The ScanEagle surveillance drone (also known as an “unmanned aerial system/vehicle”– UAS/V) was built by Boeing, and this model has been used by the military since 2004.  This will be one of several introductory tests, as allowed by Congress in the 2012 H.R. 658.  In February 2012, the Alaska Dispatch published a detailed article on the new law:

[The bill] mandates that the FAA must designate six UAV test ranges in U.S. airspace… But a special clause… will designate portions of airspace from the Aleutian Islands to the North Slope for 24-hour UAV use “for research and commercial purposes.”

The amendment was written by Alaska Senator Mark Begich, and the Anchorage Press noted his contribution to the legislation, saying the “language included in the new law by Sen. Mark Begich ensures Alaska will be a key player in drone research and commercial use in the future.”

Senator Mark Begich has been an avid advocate of government and commercial drones, and has lobbied to bring testing and use to Alaska since at least 2010.  Politico reported on his comments given at the IFPA-Fletcher Conference on National Security Strategy and Policy in January 2010:

“Bring all that unmanned aircraft to Alaska…. You pick the aircraft, and I’ll put money on it that the community will support it,” he said.

Citing the nation’s largest state’s vast unencumbered airspace and range of landscapes and temperatures, Begich issued a challenge to the military to use all that fresh air to help train personnel to lots fly Predators, Reapers and Global Hawks too.

It seems Senator Begich’s hard work to bring the UAS program to Alaska is paying off, and Conoco is ready to apply the opportunity to streamline monitoring efforts in the Arctic.  Trond-Erik Johansen, president of ConocoPhillips Alaska, emphasized the potential for improved safety as a result of the UAS program.