ANCHORAGE — Greg Walker is looking to fly in places where blue sky and runways are in short supply.
Walker is manager of the unmanned aircraft program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He’s at the beginning of a project to evaluate how unmanned aircraft can be used to monitor endangered Steller sea lions as they haul out on remote rocky outcroppings of the Aleutian Islands hundreds of miles between airports.
The project is a technology development experiment, evaluating manufacturers’ claims versus researchers’ needs, Walker said from his office at Poker Flat Research Range northeast of Fairbanks.
“Industry often will say, “Yea, we can solve all your problems, just send us money, and lots of it,’ and they’ll take care of all your problems,” Walker said. “Well, that’s not always the case.”
Walker has been on the job since December 1998, trying to find civil and scientific purposes for unmanned aircraft used by the military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Before that, he had related jobs with NASA and the Army.
The unmanned aircraft cost just under $100,000, not counting a ground station, launcher and retrieval system, not to mention a payload costing $20,000 to $300,000.
It’s tempting, he said, to be dazzled by the equipment.
“It’s kind of cool technology, but where is it really useful and where is it cost effective?” Walker said. “People often want to jump on something shiny but it may not be the right answer. We’re trying to be an honest broker house up here.”
Studying forest fires, where smoke might mean zero visibility to an airplane pilot, is a promising opportunity for unmanned aircraft. They have been tested to monitor the edge of fires to see if flames have breached creeks or bulldozer lines, and someday could carry communications equipment to relay messages between firefighters.
Researchers also see opportunities for studying Alaska’s marine mammals, even when an airplane might be cheaper.
“It’s not always a cost benefit. It may be a benefit of where you’re going,” Walker said. “Like 200 miles out in the middle of the Bering Sea, at 300 feet, is not the place you’re going to want to be in a manned aircraft.”
Working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, UA researchers two years ago flew a ScanEagle over the Bering Sea from an agency ship, McArthur II. The 40-pound vehicle built by a subsidiary of Boeing is launched from a catapult. It’s recaptured with a 30-50-foot rope that catches a hook on the wingtip.
A camera carried by the ScanEagle captured more than 25,000 images of bearded, spotted, ringed and ribbon seals on ice floes along the edge of ice receding north with the summer melt. Researchers concluded the aircraft could operate in snow and light icing.
Walker’s targets last month were endangered Steller sea lions, whose numbers in the western Aleutians have declined from 250,00 in the early 1970s to about 45,000 in 2008. The cause of the decline has not been determined but federal managers have drastically reduced commercial fishing of mackerel and cod to reduce the competition sea lions face for food.
Flights to conduct annual surveys of Steller sea lions are expensive, requiring two pilots and up to three biologists. Foul weather can cancel flights within the census period. Operating from a vessel, however, might present opportunities for a low-flying unmanned aircraft taking advantage of pockets of clear weather, Walker said.
Flights were made by an unmanned aircraft with a smaller launch platform, the 14-pound AeroVironment Puma AE, an unmanned aircraft that has been used by the Navy on piracy missions. It was hand-launched from the Arctic Explorer, a commercial fishing boat, over Bishop Point on the Bering Sea side of Unalaska Island.
The unmanned aircraft had two cameras on board. One shot high-resolution photos and the other took infrared images, quietly zooming over the sea lions, at altitudes that would flush them into the water if flown by an airplane.
After a 90-minute flight, the Puma AE by design crashed into the sea and crew in an inflatable boat picked it up.
Flights by the light-weight craft were not perfect.
“Its issue was wind sensitivity,” Walker said. “It doesn’t like to fly in gusty weather.”
That could be a problem in the wind-swept Aleutians. However, Walker sees potential for the aircraft, not just in counting sea lions at traditional rookeries and haulouts but also studying their behavior and seeing if they have moved to other areas.
UA researchers also tested a portable radar system, which monitors air traffic out to 12 miles, to make sure their unmanned aircraft stay clear of airplanes.
NOAA’s National Marine Mammal Laboratory will collaborate with the university next year for sea lion surveys by unmanned aircraft.