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Terrain, climate secured Alaska as drones test site

Posted: January 21, 2014 - 11:33pm

When the Federal Aviation Administration approved the University of Alaska’s proposal to be an unmanned aircraft systems test site Dec. 30, it also approved areas of Hawaii and Oregon, where the university has test range locations.

Ro Bailey is deputy director for the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the director of the test sites, which will be known as the Pan-Pacific UAS Test Range Complex. Bailey said the university center has partners in Oregon and Hawaii beyond the agreements for range locations and that the Pan-Pacific name is meant to best describe the full range of areas available for testing.

“It’s not just about our strategic sites,” Bailey said. “It’s about all that water that’s in between, which gives the opportunity to do some types of test operations that would be more risky than you would want to do over land — very high speed, very high altitude testing for example.”

Additionally, the locations outside Alaska give the complex members the option to test unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, in nearly all climates and terrains, from the tropics to high-Arctic regions.

The FAA cited the ranging locations as a reason it chose the university’s plan in a Dec. 30 release, stating, “The University of Alaska proposal contained a diverse set of test site range locations in seven climatic zones as well as geographic diversity with test range locations in Hawaii and Oregon.”

The State of Alaska put $5 million toward developing the complex and Oregon contributed $3 million, Bailey said. Legislation is being drafted in Hawaii for additional funding, she said.

New York’s Griffiss International Airport, the State of Nevada, the North Dakota Department of Commerce, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and Virginia Tech University were the other applicants selected by to operate UAS test sites. The FAA received complete test site applications from 25 entities in 24 states.

Each site manager will contribute to the FAA’s overall goal of determining UAS operating standards within national airspace through the unique aspects of the different sites, according to the FAA.

Currently, the site approval allows for operations until Feb. 13, 2017.

The UAS initiative was spurred by the FAA Modernization and Reform Act signed into law by President Obama in February 2012.

Within Alaska, the Pan-Pacific complex plan includes a range on Kodiak Island, the Poker Flats Research Range north of Fairbanks, the Denali Range between Fairbanks and Tok, and U.S. Air Force landing strips at Wainwright and Oliktok Point on the North Slope, Bailey said.

Oliktok Point is roughly 40 miles northwest of Prudhoe Bay. Bailey said that the operation team should know if all the ranges are approved by mid-February.

“There’s a lot of discussion that needs to happen with the FAA before we know how all this is going to work out,” she said.

The complex team is also in discussions to use other portions of the military’s restricted airspace in the state for testing, according to Bailey.

The fact that the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration conducted UAS testing across the state at sites such as Poker Flats could bode well for approval of the plan. The university center already has 50-plus certificates of authorization, or COAs, approved for various UAS operations across the state. A COA is essentially a flight plan for unmanned aircraft. It designates where, when and at what altitude an unmanned craft can be flown.

Obtaining a COA from the FAA can often take up to three months, but her team is familiar enough with the process to usually get it done within 30 days, Bailey said.

The center also experience operating UAS for private industry. A team monitored oil spill recovery equipment tests for Chevron at the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon last March. In 2012, center staff monitored wildfires on the Florida Panhandle.

That same year they counted endangered Steller sea lions along the Aleutians in high-risk flight conditions for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with a four-pound, quad-rotor drone known as a Puma.

Prior to a ConocoPhillips UAS test flight in the Chuckchi Sea in September, no commercial group had flown an unmanned aircraft in the United States. All flights had been controlled by non-profits or government agencies, per FAA regulations.

UAS industry experts have widely concluded that demand for unmanned craft could quickly escalate to a $30 billion-plus industry nationwide. In Alaska, they are seen as an integral tool for future Arctic offshore oilfield monitoring, providing cost savings and more importantly safety advantages over manned flights in harsh environments.

Jen Haney of Peak 3 Inc., an Anchorage-based UAS technical services and consultation firm, said the experience the center’s team provides in the industry should attract businesses from Outside wanting to test UAS equipment for their specific need.

“We actually have folks that can fly them,” Haney said.

Peak 3 is a part of the 58-member team supporting the university center’s development of the Pan-Pacific complex.

Bailey said she foresees government and private entities coming to her operations team with testing proposals that the team will then use to collect data on UAS large and small for the FAA. The FAA will in turn use that data to compile air-worthiness standards for specific types and sizes of craft — standards similar to what are needed for general aviation in many cases, she said.

“You have to think about what are the reasons of concern for approving unmanned aircraft to operate in the national airspace and that kind of leads you to where (the FAA’s) issues are,” Bailey said.

A major issue with UAS that must be remedied is that of a lack of a pilot to “see and avoid,” or what is now known by the FAA as “detect and avoid,” nearby aircraft. Bailey said testing technology being developed for the Department of Defense in the relatively empty airspace of the complex to make sure UAS can safely operate in the often crowded domestic airspace will likely be a top priority of the operations team.

“Obviously, with no pilot on board, there’s no one whose eyeballs can look at another airplane and take action to move the unmanned aircraft away from the path of the other aircraft; so we need an alternative means of detecting and avoiding other aircraft,” she said.

Engineering studies will also be done to test lift capacity and stability of rotor craft, along with determining how different UAS handle varying weather conditions. All that information will be passed along to the FAA, Bailey said.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at elwood.brehmer@alaskajournal.com.

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