UAF gets approval for new unmanned aircraft flights
September 25, 2018
The University of Alaska Fairbanks and its partners can now routinely fly unmanned aircraft out of their operators’ eyesight during commercial activities.
The UAF Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration and its collaborators recently received approval for the flights from the Federal Aviation Administration. The ACUASI team is the first in the state allowed to routinely fly beyond visual line of sight during commercial activities.
"For Alaska, this means we are on our way to being able to fly the beyond visual line of sight missions that industry and government in Alaska need to serve the people of Alaska,” said ACUASI Director Catherine Cahill. “For UAF, it means we are leading one of the top programs in the country, and we are getting permissions that almost no one has been granted because we have the ability, willingness and airspace to do these tests and to advance the science."
Missions will begin in October 2018 near Deadhorse, Alaska. The first flights will use unmanned aircraft to monitor portions of the trans-Alaska pipeline for Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., one of 21 partners led by ACUASI in the federal program.
The program is part of a national initiative by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the White House. A presidential executive order created the Integration Pilot Program to help integrate unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace at or below 400 feet, and find ways to safely fly unmanned aircraft beyond visual line of sight, carry out night operations and operate over people. All of these are restricted under FAA regulations.
FAA officials selected ACUASI, a part of the UAF Geophysical Institute, and its 21 partners as one of the 10 new IPP sites and the lead for the state of Alaska effort. Across the nation, 149 state, local and tribal governments competed to become an IPP site. The Alaska team includes Alaska state agencies, local governments, unmanned aircraft systems manufacturers and national UAS corporations, all helping to lead a national effort to safely incorporate drones into U.S. airspace.
According to Cahill, the recent approval is the next step to integrating drones into U.S. airspace and a key to a safer airspace, especially for Alaska.
"A lot of the operations that are being done by manned aircraft are fundamentally unsafe. We lose a lot of pilots and biologists, for example, doing mammal counts," Cahill said. "If we run missions with a manned aircraft and it goes down, we've lost lives. If we can do that work with an unmanned aircraft, if the aircraft goes down all we’ve lost is money.”
The approval is part of a “crawl, walk, run” strategy. The team would like to fly the entire trans-Alaska pipeline system in a single flight and, eventually, run similar missions throughout the year, even in the dark.
"It’s a real tribute to UAF that the FAA has given us enough support over the years that we have a test site, we’re part of the Center of Excellence, and we are an IPP partner,” Cahill said. "We are one of the top programs in the country, right here in Alaska, and FAA is acknowledging that by continuing to give us the opportunity to push the boundaries."