Despite being constantly in the news, UAVs haven’t been seen much in the skies of the US except in military training areas or by law enforcement agencies. That’s beginning to change, with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announcing that is has issued operating permits for a pair of civilian unmanned aircraft to a company based in Alaska. The two unmanned aircraft are the AeroVironment Puma, which is a hand-launched, battery powered UAV that uses an electro-optical and infrared video camera for surveillance, and the other is the Boeing Insitu ScanEagle; a small, long-endurance craft based on a fish-spotting design.
Until now, the FAA has had a dim view toward issuing flying permits for civilian UAVs in the US. Except for a few for law enforcement and research purposes, the answer has been a flat “no.” According to the FAA, a ScanEagle and a Puma UAV have received restricted category type certificates that permit aerial surveillance. These permits are an extension of the authority the FAA used for acceptance of the two craft for military service.
One reason for the permits is that both UAVs are relatively small, weighing less than 55 lb (25 kg) with wingspans of 10 feet (3 m) or less. Another is that the craft will be used in the wilderness and coastal regions of Alaska, where they will pose little hazard to populations or other air traffic.
The permit holder is a “major energy company” that in August will fly the ScanEagle off the Alaskan coast in international waters for ice surveys and studying whale migration in Arctic oil exploration areas. Meanwhile, the Puma will support emergency response crews for oil spill monitoring and wildlife surveillance over the Beaufort Sea.