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Panel considers whether Alaska should regulate 'drone' aircraft

  • Author: Suzanna Caldwell
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published November 29, 2013

Theoretically, anyone could put a camera on a broomstick and run around taking pictures. While that might seem a little weird, there's nothing illegal about it, according to Mat-Su Assemblyman Steve Colligan.

Under that same principle, unmanned aircraft systems -- better known as drones -- should be able operate, at least according the legislative task force tasked with examining and, if necessary, proposing laws that would regulate the systems in Alaska. With concerns over privacy growing, Rep. Shelley Hughes, R-Wasilla, says the burden should fall on the operator, not the device.

"We don't want to single out the tool," she said at task force meeting in Wasilla. "We want to single out that there's a problem with the operator, not the tool."

Alaska has strong privacy laws, and Hughes and others on the task force realize that, but Hughes said a balance must be found between the two. She noted that similar concerns emerged during the advent of cell phones and the Internet.

"(The public realized) wow, this will be helpful, this is beneficial," she said. "We realized there could be some problems but we like the benefits initially and we dealt with the problems after."

Hughes said other states have passed restrictive laws on the use of drones. Now those industries are looking to "set up shop" and she sees no reason why Alaska shouldn't be that place. The task force will be charged with coming up with legislation that deals with privacy and other issues related to the use of unmanned aircraft in Alaska.

The state, with its vast size and unpredictable weather, is a perfect place for the machines. With applications in everything from public safety to oil and gas exploration, she sees no reason why there shouldn't be more opportunities to increase unmanned aircraft in Alaska.

"We want to make sure we have an open door to that," Hughes said.

Looking at test sites

One big door that could be opening is the prospect of the University of Alaska Fairbanks as a possible Federal Aviation Administration test site. Ro Bailey, deputy director of the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration program at the Geophysical Institute, said the FAA is expected to pick its six test sites by Dec. 31. UAF is considered a finalist.

That would be a big deal for the program, which has been operating unmanned aircraft the last 12 years. Bailey said the FAA is still working through what the regulations should cover. Depending on the application, they can vary dramatically in size and scope.

For example, Fairbanks, with its sub-arctic climate, would be perfect to test the effects of cold weather on the machines, Bailey said.

The aircraft have applications all over Alaska.

• Alaska State Troopers have looked at using them to monitor traffic after a major collision or for search-and-rescue purposes.

• Oil and gas companies are interested in using the technology to map areas or to inspect difficult-to-reach tanks or power lines.

• Unmanned aircraft were used to help monitor parts of the emergency delivery of fuel to Nome with icebreakers in 2012.

Hughes and Bailey both said an unmanned aircraft industry could yield economic benefits in Alaska. According to a McDowell report on the subject, Alaska could gain as many as 175 jobs and millions of dollars of economic benefits.

"It's another way to diversify our economy," Hughes said. "... Let's not let the baby out with the bathwater, let's allow it to be an industry."

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com

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