Feds approve first commercial drone flight

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The Federal Aviation Administration has granted a contractor for oil company BP the right to fly the first approved commercial drone flights in the United States. 

Arlington, Va.-based drone manufacturer AeroVironment is planning to use the unmanned aircraft to survey BP oil pipelines in Alaska, the FAA said. 

The agency said Tuesday that the company conducted the first approved flight on June 8. 

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Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the flights to survey oil pipelines were an important part of the agency’s testing of the impact of increased nonmilitary drone use. 

“These surveys on Alaska’s North Slope are another important step toward broader commercial use of unmanned aircraft,” Foxx said in a statement. “The technology is quickly changing, and the opportunities are growing.”

The FAA is under heavy pressure to approve the use of commercial drones, with private companies, such as Amazon, clamoring to use them for deliveries and other tasks.

Congress has required the FAA to develop a plan for boosting the use of drones in the U.S. by 2015. Between now and then, the FAA is planning to test the interaction between drones and other types of airplanes at six sites across the country. 

In the meantime, the agency has shut down drone operations that were being conducted by groups as varied as an Internet beer company and the Washington Nationals Major League Baseball team.

Police and other law enforcement groups originally sought the technology. Privacy advocates have raised concerns about increased surveillance, however, and are warning the FAA to tread carefully.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said the approval of AeroVironment was proof the agency was following Congress’s directives on drone use. 

“The 2012 [FAA] Reauthorization law tasks us with integrating small UAS in the Arctic on a permanent basis,” Huerta said in a statement. “This operation will help us accomplish the goal set for us by Congress.”