First Commercial UAS Flight Due; Small UAS Rule Delayed

 - September 11, 2013, 1:32 PM
The FAA expected ConocoPhillips would make the first commercial flight of an unmanned aircraft, the Insitu ScanEagle, on September 11. (Photo: Insitu)

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration expects that energy company ConocoPhillips will make the first commercial flight of an unmanned aircraft today. Under a restricted category type certification the FAA awarded in July, ConocoPhillips will launch an Insitu ScanEagle from the research vessel Westward Wind in the Chukchi Sea, part of the Arctic Ocean west of Alaska.

Jim Williams, manager of the FAA’s UAS integration office, revealed the expected first-flight milestone during a presentation at the NextGen Ahead conference in Washington, D.C. ConocoPhillips did not immediately return a message seeking confirmation.

[On Wednesday afternoon, the company confirmed that the first flight was planned for today, but it had not yet received a status report that it was conducted. “We hope to have more information available as the week progresses,” said a ConocoPhillips spokeswoman. —BC]

The FAA awarded restricted type certifications on July 19 for the catapult-launched ScanEagle and the hand-launched AeroVironment Puma AE, for the first time permitting operators to use unmanned aircraft for commercial purposes—in both cases in remote Arctic airspace. The agency expects ConocoPhillips will use the ScanEagle to monitor whale migrations and ice flows in the Chukchi Sea. It has an agreement with the company to collect data about the aircraft’s flight operations, and an inspector from the agency's Alaska region was due to accompany the first mission.

Meanwhile, the FAA’s release of a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) that would enable wider use of small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in the U.S. has been further delayed and is now expected early next year. The agency originally expected to issue the proposed rule governing the operation of small UAS weighing up to 55 pounds in December 2011.

Last month at the Unmanned Systems 2013 conference, Williams said he expected the FAA would release the NPRM for comment by the end of this year. But the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) still must clear the rule and has been slowed by across-the-board “sequestration” budget cuts, he said Wednesday. “Every rule has to go through OMB, and their bandwidth has been reduced,” he added.