The Federal Aviation Administration made headlines last February when it proposed a new set of regulations for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), popularly known as drones. Current FAA policy prohibits the commercial use of drones. Following significant criticism of the commercial UAS ban, Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, instructing the FAA to develop standards for the public use of drones. Despite the proposed rulemaking, proponents of expanded drone usage say that the FAA is hindering the industry’s growth and hamstringing the commercial use of drones. For instance, critics of the proposed regulations object to rules requiring a line-of-sight between the aircraft and its operator and restricting where drone flights are allowed.

Easing such restrictions in the final rule promulgation would go a long way toward appeasing critics, but the FAA seems intent on a gradual introduction of drones into the national airspace. In line with slowly deregulating UAS as more data and technologies become available, the FAA does allow some exemptions, typically for experimentation and research. The FAA may grant case-by-case permits that exempt operators from complying with general federal aviation regulations, as authorized by Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act. Section 333 exemptions present an opportunity to learn more about UAS benefits and encourage the development of new technologies. Accordingly, the FAA should greatly increase the number of Section 333 exemptions congruently with the deregulation of commercial drones. Specifically, granting exemptions to oil and gas companies offers a unique testing ground to safely and efficiently study the risks and benefits of commercial drones.

First, Section 333 provides a conservative avenue to expand commercial drone use because authorization occurs after a case-specific review process. This allows the FAA to mitigate many of the fears associated with increased use of commercial drones. For example, by only exempting specifics missions, the FAA can ensure that the technology is safe and effective, that the drones will stay out of residential areas, and that manned aircraft will not come into contact with their unmanned peers.

Second, oil and gas companies represent a unique opportunity to explore the benefits and safety hazards associated with commercial drones. A piece of this opportunity is that oil and gas work could greatly benefit from the use of drone technology. Tasks such as leak detection, oilfield monitoring, and pipeline inspection are generally passive–albeit critical–jobs that are perfectly suited for a drone armed with cameras or sensors. NASA recently retrofitted a Lockheed Martin drone with methane sensors originally developed for the Mars Rover. Over a week of controlled testing, the autonomous drone was able to detect parts-per-billion levels of methane gas leaked by pipelines. Other projects with similarly valuable results could be explored with expanded Section 333 permitting.

In addition, oil and gas work tends to occur in sparsely populated areas. This has a two-fold effect: first, it makes less likely that a malfunction or crash will cause significant damage or injury. Second, this fact makes drone use even more valuable. Sending inspection crews over isolated or difficult terrain can be expensive and dangerous; commercial inspection drones would defray these costs.

Thus, between the nature of the tasks and the ability to safely test new UAS technologies, commercial drone use in the oil and gas industry presents a unique opportunity. The FAA even recognized as much when they selected a pipeline inspection project for the first ever commercial UAS exemption over land. In June of 2014, the FAA granted UAS manufacturer AeroVironment a regulatory waiver in order to inspect BP pipelines in Alaska. In doing so, the FAA acknowledged the safety benefits of allowing these aerial surveys as well as a drone’s minimal impact on the delicate North Slope environment.

This authorization represented a major step forward for FAA drone policy. With UAS technology improving and safety concerns decreasing, the FAA needs to build on this success. By using the oil and gas industry as a technological incubator of sorts, the FAA can harness the experimental benefits of drone proliferation while achieving economically valuable results.

Travis Gray

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