ANCHORAGE - A small unmanned aircraft buzzes north from Anchorage to drop weather monitors over the Arctic Ocean. On the way, it photographs the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, directs Alaska State Troopers to boaters lost on the Yukon River, and sends images of a North Slope caribou herd to researchers.
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Such missions are hypothetical for now. But scientists, law enforcement, the military and some industries are urging the Federal Aviation Administration to clear the way for robot aircraft to fly domestic skies.
The military routinely uses unmanned aircraft in combat and espionage abroad, but the FAA is cautious about allowing them to mingle here with jets, helicopters and small planes, plus the occasional blimp, hot-air balloon and skydiver.
Proponents, however, say that with its wide open airspace, varied terrain, extreme climate and sophisticated flying community, Alaska is the ideal crucible to develop and test federal rules that would prevent collisions and allow the FAA to comfortably sanction unmanned flight.
State and federal agencies have asked Congress to invest about $90 million to establish Alaska as a test base for manuevering unmanned aerial vehicles in domestic skies, said John Madden, deputy director for Homeland Security in Alaska, who vouched for the idea at a Senate hearing in July.
The University of Alaska Fairbanks' Poker Flat Research Range is already prepping for trial flights that could help shape FAA regulations.
The school's new $1 million unmanned aircraft system, produced by Bingen, Wash.-based Insitu Group, should give FAA officials more clues about specific precautions and instruments the agency should require, said Poker Flat manager Greg Walker.
"Our equipment to detect other aircraft is not FAA-approved because there's not a standard," Walker said. "We're helping them find one."
The Fairbanks campus is one of the six founding university members of the FAA's Center for Excellence of General Aviation Research and one of the few universities to purchase its own unmanned aircraft.
Its shiny new Insitu A-20 will run a gantlet of challenging weather and terrain. Alaska is surrounded by ocean on three sides, wrinkled by massive mountain ranges. Temperatures can range from 80 below zero Fahrenheit in winter to above 90 in summer.
"Alaska is the right location for such a testbed because there is more of the world like Alaska than many parts of the United States," Madden said. "It is a place that's potentially accessible to a broad range of missions."
Madden and others are optimistic that Congress will approve the funding that would put Alaska in the forefront of testing the aircraft for civilian use. The military has already tested unmanned planes here in recent years, and scientists have used them to study Arctic sea ice.
"This seems to have considerable support because there are so many constituencies served," Madden said.
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