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Unmanned aircraft industry takes off in Alaska

Posted: November 26, 2013 - 1:00am

ANCHORAGE — The venerable Piper Super Cub isn’t being squeezed out, but the face of aviation in Alaska is changing.

Once strictly a military tool, unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, are now being used in civilian government work and the private sector.

Fairweather LLC announced the formation of research subsidiary Tulugaq LLC Sept. 30. A joint venture between the resource industry support company and regional Native corporations Olgoonik Corp. and Kaktovik Inupiat Corp., Tulugaq’s work centers on its 21st Century aircraft, the Diamond Aircraft DA42. The word Tulugaq is Inupiaq for raven. Fairweather was founded in 1976 by Sherron Perry with an initial focus on providing aviation weather observation services to remote regions, and has since expanded into a wide array of industry support activities.

“We make science happen,” Tulugaq Operations Manager Steve Wackowski said. “My boss, Sherron Perry, saw a niche for airborne remote sensing so we’re approaching it in two ways: manned and unmanned remote sensing. Part of our DA42 is the manned portion of that, but the kicker on the DA42 is it’s optionally unmanned.”

By replacing the pilot seat in the DA42 with a remote control conversion kit, the $1.2 million aircraft becomes a UAV with a 44-foot wingspan.

The dual-flight option is the reason Tulugaq bought the DA42, Wackowski said. And when the time comes, it will be taken advantage of, he said.

Manned or not, the Tulugaq has about $400,000 worth of sensing equipment and cameras that can be swapped in and out of receivers on the nose and belly of the DA42.

All of the equipment is operated with a Microsoft Xbox video game controller. Wackowski said it was developed with the Xbox controller so the controls would be as recognizable to operators as possible.

Because the sensors are designed to fit into receivers built into the plane, Tulugaq does not need to get a certificate of airworthiness every time it changes them, he added.

“The analogy I use, is, the plane’s kind of like an iPhone; you can build an app for that,” Wackowski said.

Until recently the Federal Aviation Administration had banned commercial operation of UAVs in the United States. On Sept. 24, ConocoPhillips announced it had completed the country’s first commercial UAV (also known as an unmanned aircraft system, or UAS) flight off of Northwest Alaska in the Chuckchi Sea. The roughly 40-pound ScanEagle UAV was launched from Fairweather’s Westward Wind research vessel during a week of flights, according to a ConocoPhillips release.

“Airborne surveillance is often a component of offshore projects. The UAS could be useful in monitoring and data collection efforts, with the benefit of improved safety and lower noise levels as compared to using manned aircraft,” ConocoPhillips President Trond-Erik Johansen said in a formal statement.

To operate a UAV, a certificate of authorization, known in the industry as a COA, must be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration. It is essentially a flight plan for unmanned aircraft. It designates where, when and at what altitude a UAV can be flown.

ConocoPhillips can claim the first commercial UAV flight, but Alaska has also already seen unmanned craft used for noncommercial purposes.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Alaska Fisheries Science Center staff flew UAVs on Steller sea lion surveys in the Aleutian Islands in the spring of 2012 in conjunction with University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers at the UAF’s Geophysical Institute, which has become a leading research center for unmanned aircraft development.

By hovering a small, quad-copter UAV above the sea lions’ brooding grounds the researchers took infrared photos of the animals — listed as an endangered population — and were able to count them from an offshore vessel without disturbing the sea lions or putting pilots and biologists in risky low-level flying situations.

Unmanned craft will allow for monitoring shifting sea ice, marine mammals and birds as more companies from transportation to resource development enter the Arctic.

While it will likely be another couple years before widespread commercial use of UAVs is approved, particularly for large aircraft like the DA42, it’s “dull, dirty and dangerous” missions similar to the sea lion counts that they are made for, Wackowski said.

“Most clients won’t let you put a manned crew (in the Arctic) when you’re talking about going more than 20 to 30 miles offshore,” he said.

Prior to his work with Fairweather and its subsidiary, Wackowski had experience as an unmanned aircraft pilot in the Alaska Air Force Reserve. He holds the record for the northernmost UAV flight at 88.5 degrees North for flying a hand-launched AeroVironment Raven RQ-11 off of a Canadian icebreaker in the summer of 2011.

He was flying so close to the North Pole that the Raven’s compass was disrupted, Wackowski said.

“Things operate differently up in the high Arctic,” he said.

While setting the record, Wackowski was able to find leads, or cracks, in the sea ice ahead of the ship with an infrared camera on the Raven, which ship pilots prefer to follow when traveling through an icepack, he said. He also searched for polar bears while a team off the ship installed a buoy under the ice.

While he didn’t find any bears, he said the mission is an example of a simple task a UAV can perform to make Arctic work easier.

The FAA is in the midst of developing operational guidelines for UAVs and was directed by Congress to have them complete by 2015.

As part of the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act, the agency was tasked with choosing six UAV test sites across the country.

UAF Geophysical Institute Director Greg Walker is pushing for Alaska to be one of the test sites and has said that given the state’s areas of open airspace and potential for future UAV use, it is more a matter of whether Alaska is chosen first, rather than at all. The FAA is expected to choose the test sites by the end of the year.

A test site would consist of airspace and a landing strip designated for UAV research.

“We fully support the University of Alaska’s efforts to get the UAV test bed up here,” Wackowski said. “It would be huge — a boom for industry and Alaska.”

Aviation industry experts have forecast UAVs will quickly become a $30 billion-plus business in the U.S. once the FAA clarifies its airspace and communication regulations for the aircraft subset.

Anchorage-based Peak 3 Inc. is in the business of prepping other companies for the FAA standards rollout. Peak 3 President and CEO Jen Haney said her company has worked in Alaska and the Lower 48 consulting with businesses and government agencies on how UAVs can benefit their operations and how to be ready to fly when the FAA says, “cleared for takeoff.”

Part of the UAF team pushing for an Alaska test site, Haney said the culture of UAV operators needs to be similar to that of traditional aviation for safety reasons.

“I don’t think it’s unreasonable for (UAV) pilots to be required to have their pilot’s license,” she said.

The FAA is the “biggest roadblock” to expanding the unmanned industry, Haney said, but the slow careful nature of the agency is necessary to safely integrate a whole new realm of aircraft into the skies.

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