The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has given approval for oil company BP to fly drones over US soil for commercial purposes. Using a hand-launched, battery-powered AeroVironment Puma AE (about 4 ½ feet long with a wingspan of 9 feet), BP will be able to survey pipelines, hundreds of miles of roads and infrastructure of its Prudhoe Bay oil field in Alaska, the largest oil field in the US. And collect data. The Puma AE can fly low, at 200 to 400 feet above ground level, and slowly, at less than 40 knots. The battery can last up to 3.5 hours.
The idea of using unmanned aircraft is to save time, support safety goals, and help to protect the highly sensitive ecological area of Prudhoe Bay, which accounts for about two-thirds of Alaska oil production. How will it affect Alaska’s oil and gas workforce? A Department of Labor analysis shows that an estimated 7,500 workers are needed (between 2010-2010) to fill Alaska’s oil and gas industry employment gap. Many in the field are retiring (a third are poised to do so by 2020). Unless BP launches some kind of mentoring/training program for 30-50 year old Alaskans to fill the skill gap, (71% of the state’s oil and gas workers are residents), the nonresident hire rate average will rise.