In Fairbanks, an Alaska drone program gets off the ground

Laurel Andrews

On Monday morning, an unmanned aerial system -- also known as a "drone" -- lifted off from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, making the university the first of six designated Federal Aviation Administration test sites to deploy the technology. In Anchorage, FAA administrators outlined the drone's mission this summer and discussed numerous issues that remain to safely integrate drones into the nation's airspace.

The drone, a 2.5 pound Aeryon Scout "quadcopter," took off from UAF's Large Animal Research Station on Monday, hovering around 200 feet in the air for a few minutes before touching down in the same field. The flight was broadcast live. At a press conference in Anchorage, the director of the Pan-Pacific Unmanned Aerial System Test Range Complex, Ro Bailey, said the first flight was a "momentous occasion for our program."

This summer, UAF researchers will use the drone to survey animals at the Large Animal Research Station, hoping to discern just how useful the drone is in conducting animal population surveys. Will drone operators be able to differentiate between species? Will the animals -- in particular female musk ox -- become agitated by the technology? Researchers hope the test will "validate that the concept will actually work," Bailey said.

Plenty of drone questions remain

The Large Animal Research Station is comprised of 134 acres of land on the northern edge of the university campus. The station is home to around 30 musk oxen, as well as about 60 reindeer, according to the research station's website. UAF researchers were already interested in using drones for animal surveys, and presented the FAA with a "very tight" research proposal, FAA administrator Michael Huerta said. UAF was authorized Monday to conduct drone flights for the next two years. Along with the first test flight, the University of Alaska program was simultaneously deemed operational -- the second of six tests sites nationwide to be given the go-ahead to fly drones. A site authorized to operate drones in North Dakota has yet to officially fly a mission.

Beyond testing the drone's survey capabilities, the FAA is seeking to understand just how it will function under air space regulations. The test site is located less than 5 miles from the Fairbanks International Airport, making it in Class D airspace and subject to communication with the airport's air traffic controllers, Huerta said.

Huerta discussed numerous challenges in successfully integrating the emerging technology nationwide. As the use of drones becomes more imminent, many safety questions remain: How will drones interact with air traffic control? Will pilots operating under visual flight rules be able to spot a drone in their airspace? What happens if a UAS loses the connection with its remote operator? These first sites should help shed light on some of the biggest questions facing the FAA.

And while a common view within the aviation community is that the industry has adapted before and will adapt again, "I do think this is a little more than that," Huerta said. "Because this is a technology that's not only evolving, it's evolving very, very quickly."

He also noted that the FAA is moving away from the concept of air traffic control, and towards "air traffic management," where multiple parties will communicate regarding the whereabouts of drones in a given airspace, Huerta said.

Drones are "truly very profound technology. It has huge implications," Huerta said.

Alaska was also home to the nation's first commercial drone flight, conducted over the Arctic Ocean last summer by ConocoPhillips. The potential uses of drones "seem almost limitless," UAF chancellor Brian Rogers said from Fairbanks during the live broadcast, ranging from environmental surveys, to public safety to the development of natural resources.

The goal is to have drones safely integrated into the nation's airspace by 2015. This comes from a 2012 congressional mandate included in the reauthorization of the FAA.

$10,000 drones

UAF's test site is part of the FAA's Pan-Pacific UAS Test Range Complex. Run out of Alaska, the program is comprised of locations across the state and in Hawaii and Oregon. All sites were chosen for different reasons -- for example, Alaska offers a broad range of climate and geographic diversity, Huerta said, while Hawaii offers high-altitude flying over the ocean.

The UAF test site is one of a handful of sites in Alaska where drones will eventually fly under the program. Kodiak, Homer and the Poker Flat Research Range also have designated areas that will be used for flying, as well as areas on the Arctic coastline, Bailey said. UAF's Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft System has some 10 drones at its disposal, Bailey said, and the center is developing its own drone for future use, expected to have a price tag of $10,000. In contrast, the Aeryon Scout used in Monday's test flight cost around $70,000, Bailey said.

Bailey has been approached by multiple clients in Alaska, both private businesses and individuals, interested in building and testing drones. The Large Animal Research Station test site will give these parties a place to work with the FAA and test their drones, she said. Bailey declined to name who has approached her thus far, but she expects many more phone calls as word gets out that an operational test site exists in Alaska.

The FAA announced its six test sites in December 2013. Other states selected were Nevada, New York, Texas, North Dakota and Virginia. Right now the FAA is reviewing research proposals from the other test sites to decide what their first missions will be, Huerta said.

Alaska Dispatch