Regulation & Environment: Drones working alongside Alaska oil exploration

Arctic oil explorers are using sophisticated technology to monitor their endeavors in the harsh environment—from unmanned drones to military-designed systems, even James Bond would be impressed.

Companies exploring Arctic waters off Alaska’s northern coast are employing cutting-edge technologies, including the first commercial use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs — drones, in the popular vernacular.

In late September ConocoPhillips conducted tests with the ScanEagle UAV in the Chukchi Sea in late September, in remote airspace 120 miles off the Alaska coast.

Earlier, Alaska Clean Seas, the industry spill cleanup cooperative for northern Alaska, tested the Puma UAV for use in potential offshore spill monitoring.

ScanRagle, developed by Boeing subsidiary Insitu Inc. and the smaller Puma AE, developed by California-based AeroVironment Inc. are the first UAVs certified by the US Federal Aviation Agency for commercial use, although so far only over remote offshore waters.

One technology companies are using in the Arctic, an undersea acoustic monitoring system used by BP and Shell to track migrating bowhead whales, was adapted from US Navy systems used to track submarines.

Advantages of UAVs for industry are the same as for the military. The devices can fly for long periods on little fuel over considerable range. They are quiet, which is important for monitoring wildlife, and they don’t expose flight crews to risk, unlike manned aircraft.

ScanEagle weighs 40 pounds and can stay aloft up for 18 hours on a gallon and a half of fuel, ConocoPhillips has said. It can operate out to 100 miles from its radio ground controller, but more typically would operate at ranges of 20 to 25 miles, people familiar with the systems said.

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