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Test program in Alaska could pave way for drones’ expanded use in health, safety, environment

A Ptarmigan drone carrying a test payload flies in front of the UAF Geophysical Institute in Fairbanks on March 29, 2018. (JR Ancheta / UAF)

Under a new federal initiative, Alaska will help pioneer expanded uses for drones, including remote delivery of medical devices and long-distance surveillance of the trans-Alaska pipeline.

The Department of Transportation announced on Wednesday it chose the University of Alaska Fairbanks to be part of a test program to advance efforts to fully integrate drones into the nation's airspace.

"This is huge," said Cathy Cahill, director of the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration at the university.

Nine other organizations were selected, out of nearly nearly 150 applicants nationwide, to participate in the initiative, called the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program.

The university even beat out Amazon to win a spot, Cahill said Friday.

The university will test drones to advance night operations, flights beyond the operator's line of sight, and flights over large crowds at low elevations in cities. Alaska is a perfect testing ground, with its hard-to-access areas and long winter darkness, Cahill said.

The university will work with 20 other organizations on multiple projects, including Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., operator of the trans-Alaska pipeline.

Under the program, Alyeska plans to use drones to inspect facilities out of the pilot's line of sight along the 800-mile trans-Alaska oil pipeline, Alyeska officials said.

The long-distance capability could enable a rapid first response to isolated areas after reports of possible oil spills or other emergencies, officials said. The drones could also venture out in bad weather instead of helicopters.

"This is where drones will really be able to shine, when we don't want to send helicopters out there," said Jacques Cloutier, an Alyeska engineer working with UAF on the project. "The sooner we can get eyes out there, the better."

Drone flights along the pipeline route can collect additional data for other program partners, including caribou counts for Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and avalanche-risk checks in snowy mountain passes for the Alaska Department of Transportation, Cahill said.

Under the initiative, the university also plans to test medical-device deliveries between Hope and Indian, with the drone crossing Turnagain Arm. That could set the stage for deliveries of medical devices or medicine to remote Alaska villages, Cahill said.

"This could save lives across Alaska," she said.

Drone operator K2 Dronotics, an Anchorage company, will be part of that project, Cahill said.

Another effort planned under the initiative involves oil and gas producer Hilcorp Alaska, for drone inspection of pipelines and facilities on both sides of Cook Inlet. Marine mammal monitoring would also be part of that work.

The Federal Aviation Administration on Thursday began working with the university to determine which projects are launched first, said Cahill.

The university's goal is improving safety in part by using drones instead of manned aircraft when possible, she said.

"Protecting people's life and property is the key thing," she said.

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