Alaska continues to be at the forefront of an aviation revolution.
This time, pilots and scientists from the University of Alaska Fairbanks Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration conducted the first official beyond-visual-line-of-sight unmanned aircraft flight in the country approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.
The roughly 30-minute flight on July 31 was conducted over a nearly four-mile section of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System in a sparsely populated area north of Fairbanks. About half of the flight was flown under true beyond-visual-line-of-sight conditions, according to ACUASI Director Cathy Cahill.
“Needless to say we were all very excited and we were leading the country. That was the first (flight) where we didn’t have to have a human observer with their eyes on the aircraft,” Cahill said in an interview. “We couldn’t see the aircraft but we knew everything about the aircraft and the airspace around it.”
The unmanned aircraft center, often referred to as ACAUSI, is an arm of UAF’s Geophysical Institute, where scientists conduct high-end research on everything from the aurora to Arctic climate conditions, earthquakes, volcanoes and the remote sensing technologies used in unmanned flights, among other fields.
Short-range commercial flights with small unmanned aircraft have been authorized for roughly three years now, but it was tests in Alaska that helped FAA officials draft the detailed regulations needed for general commercial unmanned aircraft system, or UAS, flights in the national airspace.
Prior to 2016, any UAS flights with a business purpose needed special, case-by-case approval from the FAA.
In 2013, ConocoPhillips conducted the first FAA-approved commercial UAS flights in the country when the company flew unmanned survey operations over its offshore oil and gas lease holdings in the Chukchi Sea. Less than a year later, in June 2014, a UAS team working for BP flew the country’s first UAS commercial flight over land to survey Prudhoe Bay oilfield infrastructure.
The FAA approved ACUASI’s Pan-Pacific Test Range in late 2013 to be one of the country’s first six UAS testing hubs. The Pan-Pacific Range includes test sites in Oregon and Hawaii.
President Donald Trump pushed the FAA to take the further steps to advance commercial remote flights in October 2017 when he issued a Presidential Memorandum directing the Transportation Secretary to establish a UAS Integration Pilot Program.
Acting FAA Administrator Daniel Elwell said in a statement that the program is helping the agency continue to develop safe practices for integrating drones into the commercial aviation industry, which is the ultimate goal.
“This important milestone in Alaska gets us closer to that goal,” Elwell said.
The beyond-visual-line-of-sight flight was observed by a group of FAA officials, Cahill added.
She said it was meant to simulate a flight conducted to inspect pipeline integrity and monitor activity in the TAPS right-of-way.
However, the Skyfront Perimeter, a 6.5-foot diameter quad-copter, employed to fly the mission was not equipped with a camera or other surveillance instruments; the flight was strictly to demonstrate it could be done safely, according to Cahill.
“It was the airspace integration and the detect-and-avoid (demonstrations) that were the complex parts of this mission,” she said.
Utilizing UAS to conduct infrastructure inspections, mapping, wildlife monitoring and even fish counting has long been the goal of unmanned vehicle proponents. Unmanned craft are seen as being particularly applicable to Alaska, where vast distances and often challenging terrain and weather regularly combine to make manned flights to conduct the same work costly and dangerous.
A lot of this work has been done under current FAA regulations, which require small UAS to be flown within eyesight — without binoculars or other visual aides — and lower than 400 feet, but those limitations still don’t allow operators to capture the full suite of benefits an unimpeded UAS can provide, Cahill stressed.
“If I want to go monitor a seven-mile long salmon stream in a canyon I would have to put people at a distance where they could keep their eyes on the (unmanned) aircraft the entire length of that seven miles,” she said of current FAA requirements. “That requires flying people in or them hiking in under dangerous conditions; that’s not safer than flying the manned aircraft we’re trying to replace. So we need to go beyond visual line of sight.”
To go further, the ACUASI team used a detect-and-avoid system from San Francisco-based Iris Automation Inc. aboard the Skyfront to alleviate conflicts with birds or other aircraft in combination with a system of eight ground-based Echodyne radars to keep tabs on the aircraft.
The area used in the demonstration was also chosen for its usually quiet airspace and general lack of development after consultation with FAA officials, according to Cahill.
“We could see (the aircraft) in the telemetry. We could see it in the radar data; we knew where it was. We knew the Iris system was watching the airspace and it all worked really well,” she said, adding that, “the key word in everything we do is ‘safe.’ If it’s not safe, we’re not doing it.”
Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. President Tom Barrett said in a statement that even though the Skyfront flight wasn’t technically doing pipeline-related work, it is significant progress towards operating TAPS more reliably, safely and with better environmental protections.
“This innovative step forward will advance safe performance not just in our industry, but in multiple disciplines and workspaces across the country,” Barrett said.
To Cahill, it was significant, but incremental progress, as she told the FAA’s integration program team that ACUASI wants to gain approval for “365 days a year, 24/7 beyond-visual-line-of-sight operations in Alaska,” for the litany of applications such permission could be used on. The focus now is getting approval for longer flights, she said.
“It really is a crawl, walk, run, scenario and we crawled, but we crawled before anyone else did and we’re very, very excited about that.”
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.