Well ahead of the September 2015 deadline imposed by Congress for the Federal Aviation Administration to “integrate” unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, into the national airspace, yesterday the FAA granted a commercial license to British Petroleum to fly a UAS in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. The camel’s nose is now officially inside the tent.
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It has been hard to discern the FAA’s approach to the flight of UAS in the national airspace. The agency is operating under a Congressional mandate set forth in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which requires it to establish a program to “integrate UAS into the National Airspace System by September 2015.” On one hand, the FAA has appeared to take a very measured and deliberate approach to studying the impact of commercial drone flights in airspace currently used exclusively by manned vehicles. For example, in December 2013, the FAA selected six “test sites” for the study of the commercial use of UAS. (See the blog post here for a discussion of that test site program.) And last month, Jim Williams, the head of the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration office, told the attendees of the 2014 Small Unmanned Systems Business Expo in San Francisco that the Congressional mandate does not mean the issuance of commercial licenses by the deadline; it requires, instead, that the FAA come up with “a comprehensive plan for what safe integration would look like, by 2015.” As we pointed out in the blog post here, “providing a vision of what such operations ‘would look like’ is quite different from actually commencing operations.”
On the other hand, there is, well, the commencement of operations by BP.
The license was also issued to the manufacturer of the BP drone, AeroVironment. The company, which was founded in 1971, develops and manufactures electric vehicles and UAS. It does a lot of business with the federal government. The FAA license permits BP and AeroVironment to survey roads, pipelines, and equipment at the world’s largest oilfield, in Prudhoe Bay. The first flight took place on Sunday. The license restricts flight to daytime operations, when there is at least three miles visibility, and only while the aircraft is in sight.
Whether pilots of manned aircraft feel ready for it or not, licensed commercial UAS are now flying in airspace once restricted to airplanes. The issuance of this license before the completion of testing at the six FAA test sites suggests that commercial drone operations on a significant scale may be just around the corner. Companies that manufacture UAS, and those who want to use them, will rejoice that the first commercial flights are now taking place. But these other players will not be content to sit on their hands now that commercial operations have commenced. There will be terrific pressure on administrators at the FAA to issue more licenses and at an increasingly rapid pace. In fact, that pressure has already begun to mount. On June 2, the FAA confirmed that it was considering an application from seven photo and video companies to permit the use of drones to film motion pictures.
Well-established (and well-insured) companies, which BP and AeroVironment clearly are, have huge incentives to make sure that the first commercial drone operations are conducted without even a hint of risk to the safety of manned aircraft. But flying drones is a human enterprise and it, therefore, by definition, cannot be performed with perfection. As these operations grow in scope and number — as the FAA issues licenses to more companies for additional kinds of operations — there are going to be incidents. There are going to be accidents. The commercial use of UAS will prove to be a substantial source of insurance coverage claims and, inevitably, coverage denials and litigation. You heard it here first.