FAIRBANKS — When a wildfire broke out in Michael Cook’s neighborhood off the Richardson Highway a couple of weeks ago, he decided to help.
Cook flies unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones, for a living. His company is called M2 Flight Solutions.
Cook approached firefighters, and they asked him to fly a drone with a camera attached over the northern flank of the fire to see if it had spread.
Ernie Misewicz, assistant chief at the Fairbanks Fire Department, watched video of the fire from a screen on the ground and reported what he saw to the incident commander.
“You could actually look at it,” Misewicz said. “We were able to basically, at a safe level, fly around and basically help ensure the fire hadn’t escaped its perimeter.”
It was the first time Misewicz had used the technology during a live fire and not a training exercise.
“Not having to put people in harm’s way to get a view of what is going on is a positive factor,” Misewicz said. “It allowed the incident commander to concentrate his resources on putting out the fire.”
Unmanned aircraft have multiple applications, Cook said.
An unmanned aircraft can be used to safely drop a cellphone in a hostage situation.
“I have used them for bridge inspections,” Cook said. “I have counted whales before. I have counted moose and caribou. I have made three dimensional models of buildings to do inspections.”
The 31-year-old husband and father of four learned to fly unmanned aircraft in the U.S. Army after graduating from West Valley High School.
Cook said he told the Army recruiter he wanted to do something involving aviation. The recruiter suggested Cook fly unmanned aerial vehicles. Cook had never heard of them. The recruiter showed him a video.
After four years in the Army, including a tour in Afghanistan, Cook returned to Fairbanks and eventually gained employment at the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration, an arm of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
After two and a half years flying UAVs for UAF, Cook, who has a pilot’s license and special permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly drones commercially, went out on his own.
The FAA granted Cook permission to fly a Skywalker Aero commercially on May 11 after he petitioned the agency in February.
Cook is the first person granted permission to fly drones commercially in Fairbanks, he said.
His rates depend on the type of job. Cook offers discounts for long-term contracts. He is hoping to someday help law enforcement agencies.
“I have never spied or invaded anyone’s privacy,” Cook said. “I have never been asked to. If a trooper came up to me and said, ‘Go and look in their backyard,’ I would say, ‘Where is your search warrant?’”