The University of Alaska Fairbanks will play a key role in helping integrate unmanned aircraft systems -- better known as "drones" -- into U.S. airspace, after the FAA named UAF one of six test sites around the nation.
The Federal Aviation Administration announced the six sites Monday, that the agency hopes will allow the development of research findings and operational experiences to help integrate unmanned aircraft systems into U.S. airspace. UAF was one of the six sites selected from 25 submissions in 24 states. A statement from the FAA announcing the decision noted the diverse geographic and climatic diversity within UAF's test site plan.
Other states selected for test sites included Nevada, New York, Texas, North Dakota and Virginia.
The UAF plan includes sites in Oregon and Hawaii, which will include climates from the sub-tropics to the North Pole, according to Ro Bailey, deputy director of the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration program at the Geophysical Institute at UAF.
Bailey said when she met with the FAA program director earlier this year, he gently teased her about the broad range of flying areas included in UAF's proposal.
"He said to me, 'you didn't have to try to include all the geographic diversity and climatic diversity in your proposal. There are other sites, you know?'
"But we could, so we did," she said.
Bailey said the university has teamed up with a broad group of public and private stakeholders to help develop more unmanned aircraft systems in Alaska. Everyone from state departments of transportation in Alaska, Oregon and Hawaii, to oil and gas giant BP and even small, one-person unmanned aircraft businesses looking to set up drone operations have come together to make unmanned aircraft systems in Alaska a reality.
"We've got very broad set of experience and talent and they're all very interested in being part of this adventure," she said.
U.S. Sen. Mark Begich praised the FAA for selecting an Alaska test site Monday, citing the economic benefits the research would bring. Begich was key in securing $5 million from the Alaska Legislature to help move the test site proposal forward.
"This new initiative will help lay the foundation for other new economic activity in Alaska and put our state on the world map when it comes to this exciting emerging technology," he said in a statement.
Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins echoed that sentiment. He said his office has worked hard to support UAF in its bid because of the economic implications of having the research situated in Interior Alaska.
According to an economic study from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the research has the potential to bring in $19 million with 95 jobs between 2015 and 2017 in Alaska, with an increase of $112 million and 141 jobs between 2015 and 2025.
Hopkins said the borough has assisted with legislation that would make it easier for unmanned aircraft systems companies to set up shop in the area. There's hope that soon a "tech park" will be created in the area to draw companies in to continue their research. The borough's challenging climate and easy access to restricted air space near the community's military bases makes it an attractive location for businesses looking to enter the industry.
Hopkins is hoping the borough is a leader when it comes to the industry, which is starting to find a foothold.
"This is where things are moving toward, and if you aren't there, you're going to be last," Hopkins said.
Drones are probably best known for their warfare applications, though the systems can be used for a broad range of purposes -- with Alaska applications in oil and gas development, public safety and transportation.
Last month, a legislative task force looked at the privacy implications of allowing unmanned aircraft systems to operate in Alaska, led by Rep. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer. She expects to introduce legislation next session that would extend the life of the task force as an entity that would look at any privacy implications of the systems.
Although Alaska has been selected as a test site, residents should not expect to see drones flying around just anywhere. Bailey said the testing will be limited to areas designated under the test site, far from Alaska's urban centers. However, she said over the next few years expect to see flying opportunities open up as FAA regulations are set forth and more types of unmanned aircraft become certified.
"It's a huge opportunity for jobs for Alaskans," Bailey said. "It's an opportunity for a real tech industry that we haven't seen in Alaska before."