The Drones Are Coming

The FAA just issued the first permit for commercial UAV operation.

In February of 2012, Congress passed a spending bill for the Federal Aviation Administration that would, in addition to allocating $63.4 billion for modernizing the U.S.'s air traffic control systems, expand airspace for unmanned aircraft by September 2015. At the time, UAVs were approved only for military and government uses (with some 300 public agencies approved to operate drones at low altitudes and away from airports). The new law, the AP put it at the time, would permit "unmanned drones controlled by remote operators on the ground to fly in the same airspace as airliners, cargo planes, business jets, and private aircraft."

Today, that vision of a more expansive airspace has gotten a little closer to reality. The FAA issued its first permit for commercial drone flights over land. The recipient of that permit? The oil company BP

The permission was granted, ostensibly, so that BP—using the Puma AE, a small UAV originally designed for military use—can conduct aerial surveys of Alaska's Prudhoe Bay, the largest oil field in the U.S. (The surveys will pay particular attention, according to an FAA memo, to the area's roadways, pipelines, and other oil-processing equipment.) More broadly, though, the permission was granted as an explicit step toward opening up the skies to unmanned aircraft. This is a permit in the narrow sense, but also in the broad one. As Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx put it in a statement"These surveys on Alaska's North Slope are another important step toward broader commercial use of unmanned aircraft. The technology is quickly changing, and the opportunities are growing."

And they're growing because the government is fostering them. The Obama administration, The Verge points out, has considered offering a "streamlined" approval process for low-risk commercial use of drones (like farming, say, and filmmaking). It is also considering giving permissions to seven different aerial filmmaking companies that use drones in their photography. And in April, the FAA announced the certification of a site in North Dakota for testing the Draganflyer X4ES, a camera-equipped quadcopter. The site, the FAA pointed out at the time, will not only allow for the gathering of safety and maintenance data on the drones; it will also help the agency to develop rules for UAV operation. Which is to say: The frontier is fading. In its place will be standards, regulations, and crowded skies.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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