Alaska is one of six states that will serve as a testing site for unmanned aircraft systems, also known as drones, the Federal Aviation Administration announced Monday.
The University of Alaska was named one of the test site operators and will oversee testing at sites in Alaska, Hawaii and Oregon.
The announcement is part of a bill passed in Congress requiring the FAA to open national airspace to unmanned civil and commercial aircraft by the end of 2015.
A press release from the FAA said that the university’s proposal “contained a diverse set of test site range locations in seven climatic zones as well as geographic diversity ...”
Ro Bailey, deputy director of the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration, will serve as director for the test sites.
“We’ve been working with the FAA for a long time and so the opportunity to become one of the six national test sites was one that we thought was a natural for us,” Bailey said.
Bailey said the program would work with the FAA to develop standards, policies and regulations for the operation of drones in U.S. airspace. She said they’d also assist with developing pilot licensing standards.
The first ever commercial drone flight in U.S. airspace took place in September in the Arctic waters near the northern coast of Alaska. ConocoPhillips, which has offshore oil and gas leases in the Chuckchi Sea, launched the 40-pound ScanEagle drone from a research ship. The oil and gas company used the unmanned aircraft to perform surveys of marine mammals and ice floes for drilling on the sea floor.
It’s a quickly advancing technology that can complete a number of tasks more efficiently, economically and safely than a piloted plane or helicopter. It’s also a technology that many Americans are still coming to terms with. Drones have been used by American military forces to attack targets along the Afghan-Pakistan border.
The U.S. recently came under scrutiny by human rights groups for drone strikes in Yemen. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency has been using drones to monitor both the Canadian and Mexican borders, igniting privacy concerns for those who live near the borders. News reports over the summer revealed that the agency had once considered arming the drones with “non-lethal weapons” to immobilize “targets of interest.”
Drone technology in Alaska, however, has the potential to fulfill many scientific and public safety needs, Bailey said. She added that the kind of research and testing being done through the university is far different from what the military does. She said the applications for drones in Alaska include monitoring forest fires, assessing volcanic plumes, inspecting remote infrastructure like certain parts of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, salmon nest tracking, counting animal populations and search and rescue efforts. Bailey said ACUASI is currently working on developing a drone that would act like a whale breathalyzer.
“We have a researcher who wants us to fly through a whale’s spout to assess what the whale’s health is,” Bailey said. “I’m not sure how that’s going to work ... but that one is amazing.”
The University of Alaska has offered up 13 sites for testing, six of which are in Alaska. One is located in the Tongass National Forest. With sites also in Hawaii and Oregon, the university will be responsible for what is being called the Pan-Pacific UAS Test Range Complex.
“We believe we’ll attract a large number of manufacturers to evaluate their aircraft in a variety of different environments,” Bailey said. “What we really hope to see is a lot of great technology jobs for Alaskans as they graduate from UAF and UAA and even places outside, that they have a place to come home to where they can get great jobs.”
The Alaska Legislature provided $5 million for drone research and development to the university two years ago. During the 2013 session, the Legislature created a task force to examine gaps in current laws relating to unmanned aircrafts. The task force is expected to report on its findings in January.