U.S. Energy Firm’s First Arctic Drone Mission Paves Way for Controversial Drilling

Wherever drones fly, controversy seems to follow. This time, it’s not in war or to battle insurgents, but to help open the Arctic Ocean to oil exploration.

Oil company ConocoPhillips on September 12 launched the first commercial drone flight over the Arctic to survey the Chukchi Sea. The flight took place only after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) gave its approval to use unmanned aerial systems (UAS) for such purposes.

The company launched a small, 40-pound ScanEagle drone, one of four onboard a research vessel, for a 36-minute flight over international waters to test the unmanned craft’s sensors and navigation system. The drone’s use in the Arctic will be to monitor possible threats and environmental risks, such as gauging marine life activity (tracking whale movements) and ice sheet flow, in an effort “to meet environmental and safety rules before drilling on the sea floor,” the FAA said in a prepared statement.

The aircraft were purchased from Insitu Inc., a subsidiary of Boeing that manufactures drones for both civilian and military use. The ScanEagle has been used by the U.S. military since 2004 for surveillance missions.

In April—several months after Shell’s oil rig difficulties in the Arctic—environmentalists hailed ConocoPhillips’ announcement that it had decided against drilling in the region next year, which cited uncertainties of federal regulations as the reason. But now, only five months later, the company’s drone mission into the region suggests that its decision may have been reversed.

The Center for Biological Diversity, which opposes oil exploration in the Arctic, questioned whether the aerial surveillance would make drilling any safer.

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