FAA opens Arctic to commercial small UAVs

A research vessel plying the icy waters of the Chukchi Sea above the Arctic Circle seems an odd place for a Federal Aviation Administration employee.

But that’s exactly where Alaskan Region inspector Jay Skaggs was on September 12. His presence aboard theWestward Wind helped ensure the first FAA-approved commercial flights by an unmanned aircraft went off safely and without a hitch.

The Westward Wind, chartered by energy giant ConocoPhillips, carried four Insitu Scan Eagle UAS to perform marine mammal and ice surveys necessary to meet environmental and safety rules before drilling on the sea floor. Skaggs and the Insitu flight crew led by Jeff Kelly watched as the first commercial ScanEagle zoomed off a catapult and into the rainy Arctic skies. After a successful 36-minute flight, the ships retrieval system captured the UAS and the ground-breaking mission was complete.

The ScanEagle flight really represents the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. of the flight is a product of efforts by dozens of people from the FAA, ConocoPhillips, UAS manufacturer Insitu, and other federal and international agencies who put in months of intense work behind the scenes to open up the Arctic for commercial UAS operations.

The 2012 FAA reauthorization required the agency to establish permanent Arctic areas where small UAS can operate for research and commercial purposes. The challenging question was how? No UAS rules existed for the international airspace some of which the FAA manages for the International Civil Aviation Organization-where all the UAS Arctic flights would occur.

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