Fairbanks flight opens unmanned aircraft test site

A small and unassuming unmanned aircraft made a short flight Monday in Fairbanks that signified a big step in aviation, Federal Aviation Administration chief Michael Huerta said.


The quad-rotor Aeryon Scout’s flight of less than five minutes at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Large Animal Research Station officially made the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration the second operational unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, test site in the country.

“Alaska is positioned to make great contributions to our research of unmanned aircraft,” Huerta said from Anchorage.

The FAA recently approved a two-year certificate of authorization, or COA, for the Unmanned Aircraft Center for Scout flights at the research station.

In late December, the center’s Pan-Pacific UAS Test Range Complex, which also includes sites in Oregon and Hawaii, was sanctioned by the FAA as one of six UAS testing grounds across the country.

“This is absolutely a special day for our program and for our people who have worked so hard to make this happen — make it a reality,” center director Marty Rogers said in Fairbanks. “We have and have had for a long time a very active and science and research unmanned aircraft program with over a decade of successful flight operations across Alaska, the Lower 48, and internationally, but this, the very first flight at any of the UAS test sites is groundbreaking for us because it is a visible and tangible event that moves us collectively one step closer to safe integration of unmanned aircraft into our national airspace.”

The test sites are the result of a 2012 congressional mandate to the FAA to develop operating procedures to meld UAS and traditional aviation by 2015.

Rogers said the center would work with UAF scientists to determine the feasibility of using the Scout and other UAS to do what Huerta called often “tedious” large animal studies in the wild.

While symbolic, Monday’s flight at the Large Animal Research Station was also used to see how musk ox at the station responded to the Scout, Pan-Pacific Range Director Ro Bailey said.

Huerta said the Pan-Pacific Range and other sites would be used in coming years to determine safe flight conditions, proper operator qualifications, support systems and, most importantly, effective “sense and avoid” technology for flying among traditional aircraft.

“I think we need to think about this as an evolutionary process,” he said.

While initial UAS guidelines will likely be implemented in 2015, they will continue to morph as new technologies arise, Huerta said.

UAF Geophysical Institute researchers counted Steller sea lions with an infrared camera affixed to a UAS in the Aleutian Islands for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2012 — a low-altitude mission that would be dangerous and largely ineffective for a manned aircraft.

Additionally, the UAF crew has used the little fliers to monitor oil spill response drills run by Chevron in at the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon.

The experience of the UAF staff was a “major factor” in selecting the Alaska Center as a test site operator, according to Huerta.

“They came to us with a very tight and well-developed research program that addressed a very broad scope of the research objectives we identified for the program in its entirety,” Huerta said.

That work was done as government research, before the test site program was in place. The FAA is not currently issuing COA’s for commercial UAS operations and the only legal commercial unmanned flight in the country’s history took place last September when ConocoPhillips used a UAS to survey its offshore oil leases in the Chukchi Sea.

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


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