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FAA approves first commercial use of drones over land

BP energy corporation and drone maker AeroVironment are given the OK to fly an unmanned Puma aircraft over Alaska to survey pipelines, roads, and equipment.

AeroVironment's Puma drone being hand-launched in Alaska. AeroVironment

The Federal Aviation Administration took a big step on Tuesday in easing restrictions on commercial drone use in the US. For the first time, the government agency gave permission for a commercial drone to fly over land.

The approval went to drone maker AeroVironment and BP energy corporation. The FAA will allow AeroVironment to fly unmanned Puma aircrafts over Prudhoe Bay in Alaska -- home to the largest oilfield in North America -- to survey pipelines, roads, and equipment for BP.

The Puma is a small, hand-launched drone that is four and a half feet long with a wingspan of nine feet. It is equipped with a sensor payload that picks up images and data that can then be processed into 3D computerized models. Also, because the Puma can fly low -- 200 to 400 feet above the ground -- and slow -- less than 40 knots -- it's able to gather extremely accurate location data.

"This new solution is now helping BP manage its extensive Prudhoe Bay field operations in a way that enhances safety, protects the environment, improves productivity and accomplishes activities never before possible," AeroVironment chairman and CEO Tim Conver said in a statement. "This is an important achievement for our joint team and for the industry in demonstrating the safe and effective use of our proven UAS [unmanned aircraft system] technology for commercial applications."

It appears that the FAA may be prepared to give out even more permissions for commercial drone use. In a statement on Tuesday, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx hinted at how this field is rapidly developing.

"These surveys on Alaska's North Slope are another important step toward broader commercial use of unmanned aircraft," Foxx said. "The technology is quickly changing, and the opportunities are growing."

Just last week, the FAA said it was considering allowing a handful of movie and TV studios to commandeer unmanned aircrafts throughout the country's skies. The government agency has given permission for unmanned commercial aircraft flights over the Arctic waters before, but today's announcement is the first approval for over-land flights.

AeroVironment performed its inaugural Puma flight for BP on Sunday.