An Oil Company Has Beat Amazon’s Drones Into the Skies

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In another sign that the United States has evolved into a major oil-producing nation, the first company to receive government permission to fly commercial drones over unpopulated areas isn’t Amazon, but British energy company, BP (NYSE: BP  ) .

The U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) gave BP approval to use the Puma unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for surveys of the Prudhoe Bay oil field in Alaska, the first time in history it has authorized the use of a commercial drone over land.

"These surveys on Alaska’s North Slope [where the field is located] are another important step toward broader commercial use of unmanned aircraft," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement. "The technology is quickly changing, and the opportunities are growing."

A little bit smaller than a Honda Civic, the Puma was originally designed by AeroVironment for military use, which has long used drones – controversially -- to target suspected terrorists overseas.

BP plans to use a non-military version of the Puma to survey pipelines and other infrastructure. Last year, the UAV conducted limited operations over Arctic waters to survey icebergs and monitor drilling platforms in the region. It’s essential information for any oil company considering operations in uncharted waters.

The FAA said the Puma would save BP time and money by monitoring oil field installations in a way that protects the sensitive environment in northern Alaska.

The British company is one of the biggest oil producers working in Alaska and Prudhoe Bay is among the largest oil fields ever discovered in the world. In April, the company announced it was selling off four of its oil fields in the region so it could focus on Prudhoe Bay developments, which it said was one of its "great strengths" in North America.

Oil production peaked in Alaska's North Slope region in 1988 at 2.2 million barrels per day (bpd). Since then, production has declined as fields like Prudhoe Bay start to mature. Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell said more output is critical for a state that relies on oil for more than 90 percent of its revenues. Production as of last year was around 575,000 bpd.

BP said it plans to deploy two more drilling rigs in Alaska and aims to spend more than $1 billion there during the next five years. If the company's plans bear fruit, oil operations in Alaska will contribute to the estimated 9.2 million bpd expected in the United States by next year.

That would be the highest level of oil production since 1972, four years after the Prudhoe Bay oil field was discovered.

Meanwhile, Amazon says it hopes to have the option to deliver packages to your doorstep using drones as early as 2015. The goal, the company says, is to get packages delivered in 30 minutes or less. But with U.S. oil outpacing even the world's largest online retailer, it's BP that has bragging rights for the first new sanctioned use for commercial drone technology.

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