ConocoPhillips’ use of an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) for commercial purposes in remote Arctic airspace—an historic first—has not been perfect. The energy company confirmed that an Insitu ScanEagle it is using for airborne surveillance of the Chukchi Sea west of Alaska crashed on a second test flight. The aircraft’s first flight from the research vessel Westward Wind took place on September 12. It lasted 36 minutes and represented the first FAA-approved commercial UAS operation in the U.S. National Airspace System.
“As you may know, ConocoPhillips and its collaborators successfully completed the first approved commercial use of an unmanned airborne system in U.S. controlled airspace,” the company stated in an email to AIN. “However, during a second test flight, the aircraft experienced engine failure and—as it is programmed to do—aborted the flight into the water. The aircraft was recovered.”
ConocoPhillips did not specify the date of the second test flight or whether ScanEagle operations were suspended as a result of the engine failure. The website sUAS News first reported the accident earlier this month.
According to the FAA, the Westward Wind carried four ScanEagles, which are launched by a pneumatic catapult launcher and recovered by a “SkyHook” folding boom and catch cable. The 40-pound ScanEagle is fitted with a pusher piston engine with a two-blade propeller. The Westward Wind is operated for ConocoPhillips by Olgoonik Fairweather LLC, a joint venture of Fairweather Science and the native-owned Olgoonik Corporation, representing the community of Wainwright, Alaska.
In a press release following the first commercial flight, the FAA said that ConocoPhillips expressed an interest in flying an unmanned aircraft for marine mammal and ice surveys last October. The parties subsequently signed an “other transaction agreement” that facilitated the approval; in exchange, ConocoPhillips agreed to share data from its use of the aircraft with the FAA.
The FAA granted Part 21.25 restricted-category type certifications for the ScanEagle and the hand-launched AeroVironment Puma AE on July 19, for the first time allowing operators to use them for commercial purposes. The certifications limit the operations to remote, Arctic airspace, a region designated by Congress in the 2012 FAA reauthorization act.