The Federal Aviation Administration has certificated two unmanned air vehicles for commercial operations, with the AeroVironment Puma and Boeing/Insitu ScanEagle becoming the first such systems to be allowed to conduct such flights in the USA.

The certifications represent the US regulatory body’s first sustained allowance of UAV usage by private citizens, and the first at all for commercial services. While small UAVs are often flown in the USA, their operations are largely illegal, and the FAA regularly warns and fines operators.

UAV flights are only allowed with a special exemption, called a Certificate of Authorisation (COA), which include stringent requirements strictly limiting aircraft manoeuvers, and often requiring a dedicated chase aircraft or spotter.

The two UAV types are both expected to be deployed to Alaska in the coming months. The ScanEagle will be operating off a ship for oil company ConocoPhillips, scouting for icebergs and counting whales to protect the valuable drilling platforms and fulfil environmental requirements. AeroVironment has not commented on how the Puma will be used, but civil government agencies have previously used similar aircraft for counting birds.

The new FAA certificates are modest, covering only four individual ScanEagle aircraft and three Pumas. Only one aircraft of the type is allowed airborne at any one time, and flight through clouds or icing conditions is prohibited. Strict wind conditions are also attached, limiting the allowable gusts and winds during both take off and landing. However, the certifications do not mention line-of-sight control, which is a requirement for most COAs.

"This certificate represents an aviation milestone that could not have happened without the FAA’s vision and leadership," says Tim Conver, AeroVironment chief executive. "Aerial observation missions can now be safely accomplished in hazardous Arctic locations, which will reduce the risk of manned aviation in an efficient, cost-effective and environmentally friendly manner. We believe initial operations in the Arctic can lead to long-term broad adoption for similar applications elsewhere in the United States and throughout the world."

The FAA has moved cautiously to introduce UAVs into US airspace, and is not legally obligated to do so until 2015. The commercial certification is the result of previous military certification – the US military is the primary customer for both the Puma and ScanEagle.

The situation is unique, allowable only because of the Congressionally-mandated opening of airspace over much of Alaska to small UAVs in the coming months. Outside Alaskan airspace, commercial UAV use remains restricted, and government operations will continue to require COAs.

AeroVironment is reportedly also seeking commercial certification for at least one other UAV in its fleet, the much larger Global Observer. The FAA declined to comment on potential further certificates, citing ongoing evaluation.

Source: Flight International