First commercial UAV flights meet mixed success

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The first FAA-approved commercial flights of unmanned air vehicles (UAV) met with mixed results following a successful first flight and unsuccessful second.

The first flight occurred on 12 September, including the successful launch and recovery of an Insitu ScanEagle. The aircraft, which is routinely flown by the US and UK navies, amongst others, conducted a 36-minute test flight over the Chukchi Sea near northern Alaska.

The second flight, which occurred shortly thereafter, ended when the engine shut off during flight and crashed into the sea. “The aircraft experienced engine failure and – as it is programmed to do – aborted the flight into the water. The aircraft was recovered,” says ConocoPhillips, which operates the aircraft with Insitu. The condition of the aircraft is unknown as of press time.

A large portion of airspace in northern Alaska was opened to commercial UAV flights after a Congressional mandate was inserted into the FAA’s 2013 funding reauthorization. The FAA is also mandated to introduce small UAVs into national airspace by late 2015.

Though UAVs routinely operate in civil US airspace, the flights are conducted by government or military branches, and must conform to strict rules. Such rules often include spotters on the ground or a chase plane in the air, sticking to a pre-defined route and staying well away from crewed aircraft.