FAA grants milestone approval for small AeroVironment UAS

AeroVironment Inc. reported today that it has received a first-of-its-kind approval from the Federal Aviation Administration that permits operators to fly commercial missions using one of its small unmanned aircraft systems. This marks the first time the FAA has approved a hand-launched unmanned aircraft system for commercial missions.

The company received the “Restricted Category” rating for its Puma AE on July 19. AeroVironment says it expects the system to be deployed later this summer to support emergency response crews for oil spill monitoring and wildlife observation off the coast of the Beaufort Sea in the Arctic Circle.

Prior to this Restricted Category-type certificate being issued, it was not possible to operate an unmanned aircraft system in the national airspace for commercial operations. AeroVironment notes that potential users could obtain an experimental airworthiness certificate, but the certificate specifically excluded the use of UAS for commercial operations.

“This certificate represents an aviation milestone that could not have happened without the FAA’s vision and leadership,” Tim Conver, AeroVironment chairman and CEO, said in a statement. “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 13-pound Puma AE unmanned aircraft system is battery operated and does not require runways or other infrastructure, making it a quiet and portable solution that is well-suited to certain natural wildlife habitats. The FAA said previous military acceptance of the Puma AE design allowed it to issue the Restricted Category-type certificate.

UPDATE: The FAA reports that it also issued a restricted category type certificate to Insitu’s ScanEagle X200, another small UAS weighing less than 55 pounds. The ScanEagle is roughly similar in size to AeroVironment’s PUMA, though the gas-powered system is heavier (at 44 pounds) and launches from a pneumatic catapult. The FAA says a major energy company plans to fly the ScanEagle off the Alaska coast in international waters starting in August.

“Issuing the type certificates is an important step toward the FAA’s goal of integrating UAS into the nation’s airspace,” the FAA said in a statement. “These flights will also meet requirements in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 that define Arctic operational areas and include a mandate to increase Arctic UAS commercial operations.”

[ photo courtesy of AeroVironment ]