Story by Staff Sgt. Patricia McMurphy
FORT WAINWRIGHT, Alaska – The use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems has seen a steady growth as they are used for an increasing number of missions, both military and civilian. A variety of payloads such as sensors, cameras, radar, communications electronics, electronic warfare, weaponry, and more make more missions possible.
The University of Alaska Fairbank’s Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft System Integration teamed up with U.S. Army Alaska to increase the awareness and practical applications of UAS and to ensure safety procedures were in place. The UAF test site is one of six approved by the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct UAS research.
Chief Warrant Officer 4 Eric Collier, U.S. Army Alaska Aviation Task Force safety officer, worked hand-in-hand with ACUASI to set standards for UAS operations in the region. Collier assisted in developing policies and procedures for UAF’s unmanned systems program and assisted in safety and standardization of flight operations.
“I think what you’re going to see and why we have a very positive ‘hey, what can we help you with?’ attitude is based on the fact that these guys are about to mark the future for unmanned systems within the national airspace,” said Collier. “The way forward for these test sites is integration not segregation.”
USARAK and UAF plan to share what they learn and information gained while testing UAS in Alaska and abroad.
“It’s not so much an interest that we have in the ACUASI, it’s more of a shared partnership to see everything succeed and go to the next level, because when they develop and get into the national airspace, the leash starts to come off of us as well”
The Department of Energy authorized ACUASI to operate Unmanned Aerial Systems within the geographic region underlying their airspace area. The ACUASI has been providing the Federal Aviation Administration data gathered from missions abroad such as firefighting assistance, ice flow detection, tsunami debris, drift net detection, methane detection and bio-diversity.
According to the FAA, the UAF proposal contained diverse test site range locations in seven climatic zones as well as geographic diversity sites in Hawaii and Oregon. The research plan included the development of a set of standards for unmanned aircraft categories, state monitoring and navigation and also plans to work on safety standards for UAS operations.
“These test sites will give us valuable information about how best to ensure the safe introduction of this advanced technology into our nation’s skies,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
The FAA’s role in the UAS program is to help the test site operators set up a safe testing environment and to provide oversight that ensures the sites operate under strict safety standards.
The University of Alaska Unmanned Aircraft Program, part of the UAF Geophysical Institute, created in 2006 tested how unmanned aircraft perform in harsh conditions and evaluated payloads.
Ro Bailey, Director at Pan-Pacific UAS Test Range Complex and deputy director at ACUASI- RDT&E, said that the average citizen should not worry about these UAV’s “spying” on them. She said there are privacy laws in place to protect people’s privacy. What she would like people to know are all the missions that could benefit the use of UAS.
“You can use them for mapping purposes, you can map down to a couple centimeters in resolution and that’s great for miners and surveyors and people who are worried about unstable slopes on the sides of roads that could turn into avalanches, like the one that closed off Valdez,” said Bailey. “You can use them for search and rescue or any kind of disaster response. If you have an earthquake and roads are cut off, you’ve got an aircraft that you don’t need a runway for, you can just launch it and go do initial assessments.”
Bailey said they have already employed some of their UAS both locally and abroad to assist in missions that are either too expensive or not feasible with manned aircraft.
“We have used (UAS) to map the boarders of wildfires, to inspect infrastructure for the pipeline, for monitoring wildlife,” Bailey said.
“We are going to be doing a moose and dall sheep survey this year and we have done elephants in South Africa,” she added.
Having performed flights based aboard ships in the Bering Sea and flying the Boeing ScanEagles, a low-cost, long-endurance autonomous unmanned vehicle, through dense wildfire smoke blanketing Interior Alaska, the UA Unmanned Aircraft Program has a demonstrated history of operating systems in less-than-ideal conditions according to the UAF Geophysical Institute. In addition, the program maneuvered through the complex web of policies and permits needed for flying unmanned aerial systems through various types of airspace.
Under the current law, test site operations will continue until at least Feb. 13, 2017.