BY ELWOOD BREHMER, ALASKA JOURNAL OF COMMERCE
The Federal Aviation Administration continues to revise interim unmanned aircraft regulations as it drafts the final set of rules for the rapidly emerging technology.
The FAA granted requests across the country Dec. 10 for commercial unmanned flights by four companies for construction site monitoring and oil rig flare stack inspections.
“Unmanned aircraft offer a tremendous opportunity to spur innovation and economic activity by enabling many businesses to develop better products and services for their customer and the American public,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a release. “We want to foster commercial use of this exciting technology while taking a responsible approach to the safety of America’s airspace.”
Foxx determined that the aircraft proposed in these operations, which are small and will be flown within line-of-site, do not pose a threat to other users of the national airspace and therefore do not require airworthiness certification.
Exemptions allowing commercial flights of unmanned aircraft are being granted on an industry basis ahead of the FAA’s final regulations for the craft, said Jay Skaggs with the Alaska Flight Standards office.
“The Unmanned Aircraft Program Office is working hard to push through as many of these exemptions as possible and allow commercial operations of UAS, with controls course,” Skaggs said.
Unmanned aircraft are referred to by the FAA as unmanned aerial systems, or UAS, a term that includes craft that have any type of sensor or camera technology attached.
Skaggs discussed the rule change Dec. 5 in Anchorage before the state Unmanned Aircraft Systems Legislative Task Force.
Earlier this year, the FAA approved the film industry to use UAS. To date, seven film companies have had their specific flights granted.
He said photographing and surveying real estate, agriculture and infrastructure, public and private, will likely be the next commercial approvals, although exactly when is unclear.
Flights must still be deemed to be in the public interest to be approved by the FAA, he said, as flights approved for government and nonprofit work have been.
Until recently, widespread use of UAS has been limited largely to public entities for research purposes. The first exemptions for flights with commercial intent in U.S. airspace were granted for oil and gas reconnaissance in Alaska.
Skaggs said companies requesting an exemption should expect about a six-month turnaround on their application.
The FAA’s draft rulemaking document for UAS could be out for public comment by the end of the year, he said.
When Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 it included an unfunded mandate requiring the agency to finalize rules for small UAS operations by September 2015. Small UAS are those less than 55 pounds.
Also, large or small, all objects that can be controlled in flight are now considered aircraft by the FAA, Skaggs said.
Model aircraft can still be flown as they have been for years, but the FAA has put together a list of “dos and don’ts” for model aircraft enthusiasts to abide by so they remain distinct from the UAS flown today.
Ro Bailey, deputy director of the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration, a part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said getting approval for UAS operations in the state could soon be a lot easier.
“There’s quite a bit of work going on right now to make the ‘every new aircraft needs a new (Certificate of Authorization)’ problem go away,” she said at the task force meeting.
Bailey is on the 12-member UAS Task Force.
The center operates the Pan-Pacific UAS Test Range Complex, which is one of six FAA approved test sites across the country. Along with Alaska, the Pan-Pacific Range includes operations areas in Hawaii and Oregon.
The center’s team is working on two Certificates of Authorization, or COAs, which are the FAA approval documents for aircraft platforms, for daytime flights of small fixed-wing and rotor-craft and on the entirety of the North Slope, Bailey said.
The “breakthrough” was the realization that those wishing to fly UAS as a public entity at the test range were already being certified as air-worthy by the center, according to Bailey. The next step was allowing the center to grant access to airspace as well.
The head of the COA processing arm of the FAA has agreed in principle to the idea, she said, and the hope is that the center will submit its application for the COAs early next month. From there, there is not timeline for a ruling.
“This will finally be one advantage the test sites will have — the ability for someone to call up and say, ‘What do you need from me to come fly in two weeks?’” Bailey said.
Currently, all COAs go directly to the FAA and can take 90 days or more to process.
If the North Slope is approved, Bailey said the plan is to add COAs for Kodiak Island and eventually the whole state of Alaska.
Attracting UAS business
Small businesses are popping up across Alaska in preparation for the vast commercialized use of UAS technology. At the same time, the state government is looking at how Alaska compares to others looking for UAS business.
The Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development is preparing to release a report after Alaska’s position in the industry was investigated.
Economic Development Division Director Joe Jacobson and University of Alaska Anchorage Business Enterprise Institute Executive Director Christi Bell shared some of the reports preliminary findings with the task force Dec. 5.
Jacobson said UAS have so many immediate practical applications in Alaska — monitoring of wildlife, oil and gas facilities, wildfires and surveying remote areas to name a few — that the state will undoubtedly be a part of the industry regardless of what the state government does to encourage UAS business.
Bell said the state’s test range, abundant airspace, aviation-friendly public and UAF’s nearly 10-year history of researching UAS were all viewed as positive when discussed with industry representatives.
“We have clearly organized the industry in some anchor ways,” she said.
However, the pair emphasized throughout their presentation that more will likely need to be done to significantly grow the UAS industry in the state.
“If the vision is to turn this industry into an anchor institution where we really are going to be driving innovation then we’re going to have to probably be a little more aggressive in terms of how we approach it in the long term,” Jacobson said. “We’ll have a piece of it no matter what, how big of a piece is really determined by how we respond right now to our competitors.”
He said the state lacks the cluster of business that is doing most of the innovation in the UAS industry.
Much of that business is headed to the competitors Jacobson mentioned, namely California, Nevada, Arizona and Texas.
While Alaska is seen as a very tax-friendly state, that notion is geared towards individuals and not businesses, Jacobson said.
At its highest, Alaska’s corporate tax rate of 9.4 percent is 30th in the nation. The state is 32nd in terms of average property tax.
A lack of corporate tax in Nevada and incentives in Arizona have helped those states siphon businesses from the nearby epicenter of technology that is California, Jacobson said.
Arizona’s research and development tax credit provides for up to 24 percent of qualifying expenses up to $2.5 million and 15 percent above $2.5 million to be reimbursed. It also has a Quality Jobs Tax Credit that offers businesses up to $9,000 over three years for each qualifying job created, according to Bell.
The research credit incentive lessens after 2018, she said, a way to push movement quickly.
Bell said Alaska is behind the curve, in part because the state simply hasn’t matured as others with complex incentive packages have had time to do.
“Honestly, we needed to have this all in place three to five years ago,” she said.
Still, she is confident the State of Alaska is flexible enough to meet the market for its own benefit, Bell said.
UAS Task Force co-chair Rep. Shelley Hughes said the state could be interested in making relocation to Alaska more attractive as long as it doesn’t require “pumping money” into investment given the rough fiscal future.
Jacobson said the state might want to look at ways to improve engineering and technology training programs at the University of Alaska System to go along with its well-regarded aviation training.
Task force member John Parker, founder of Integrated Robotics Imaging Systems Ltd. in Kenai, said in an interview that the state doesn’t have to incentivize relocation for big UAS companies. Rather, he also said that bolstering the universities’ research and development capabilities and making technology transfer from institutions to the private sector easier could encourage startups that choose Alaska for other reasons, as he did.
Parker’s company is fine-tuning a UAS “sense and avoid” radar system developed by researchers at the University of Denver.
A longtime Alaskan, Parker began Integrated Robotics in 2012 with the goal of driving innovation in the state. He said he’s talked to the owners of several small UAS companies across the country who just wanted to do business in an enjoyable place to live.
“In today’s world of Internet communication, location is not at all what it used to be,” Parker said.
Regardless of what route the state chooses, he’s pleased with the current initiative.
“(The) Department of Commerce is vigorously approaching this with the right attitude,” Parker said.