ConocoPhillips to Use Drones in Alaska

26 Aug

by Ryan Koronowski / Think Progress

Credit: (AP Photo/University of Alaska Geophysical Institute, David Giessel)

Credit: (AP Photo/University of Alaska Geophysical Institute, David Giessel)

The FAA issued an approval in July that paved the way for a “major energy company” to fly unmanned drones in U.S. airspace. Yesterday it became clear which corporation would be using drones to aid its Alaskan oil drilling efforts: ConocoPhillips.

This marks the first time a private company has received permission to fly “unmanned aircraft systems,” UAS — or drones — in America for non-experimental purposes.

“Until now, obtaining an experimental airworthiness certificate — which specifically excludes commercial operations — was the only way the private sector could operate UAS in the nation’s airspace,” the FAA announced last month. FAA hailed the move as “a milestone that will lead to the first approved commercial UAS operations later this summer.”

“A major energy company plans to fly the ScanEagle off the Alaska coast in international waters starting in August.”

That “major energy company” is ConocoPhillips, as reported by Petroleum News.

AeroVironment, one of the two companies that manufacture the drones approved for use by ConocoPhillips, hailed the approval at the time: “This marks the first time the FAA has approved a hand-launched unmanned aircraft system for commercial missions.”

Thus far in American history, the only drones buzzing around have been operated by public entities like the University of Alaska, or by manufacturers that were testing the technology.

The drones will initially be used to survey ice floes and migrating whales as the company mounts oil exploration efforts. ConocoPhillips also expects to use them for emergency response, oil spill monitoring, and wildlife surveillance. Other drones have been tested or talked about for use in pipeline and wellhead inspections in remote areas.

The company is still playing its cards close to its chest, telling Petroleum News, “we’re not quite ready to go into full talk mode about it.”

[Earth First! Journal editor’s note: In light of the rapid militarization of the fossil fuel industry, it seems likely that the cards being held close to ConocoPhillip’s chest include suppressing activist opposition and resistance to pipelines and drilling efforts. See: Armed Military-Style Guards Patrol Large Mine in Wisconsin, Fossil Fuel Industry’s Psychological Warfare Scandal, and The Corporate Strategy to Win the War Against Grassroots Activists.]

In 2015, the FAA will open up American airspace for the commercial use of drones. Many have raised concerns about this, as these aircraft can hover above private property, taking pictures for much longer periods, and much more inconspicuously than conventional manned aircraft.

They also crash more frequently than normal aircraft, they can be hacked, and don’t have the sensors to spot approaching aircraft.

Conservative conspiracy websites like Infowars and Fox News Insider have long made claims that the Environmental Protection Agency was using “spy drones” to monitor pollution and land use, allegedly endangering farmers and ranchers.

It was shortly there after pointed out that EPA has been flying normal manned flights for a decade to verify compliance with environmental watershed laws — meaning regular people taking photos out of four-seater planes.

This didn’t stop Republicans in Congress from attempting to stop EPA from using drones.

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