FAIRBANKS — Three types of unmanned drones shared the smoky airspace with two manned planes over a controlled burn this fall in Florida.
Ro Bailey, a special project coordinator with the Alaska Geophysical Institute, flew a smoke-detector-sized helicopter, known as the Aeron Scout, from the ground using a tablet and a stylus. Because of the crowded airspace, she was given directions to keep her vehicle under a ceiling of 150 feet.
The operation was successful at collecting data from the fire, and just as important for drone researchers in Alaska, it demonstrated that manned and unmanned craft can co-exist, at least under heavily controlled circumstances, she said.
There remain privacy and safety concerns to be resolved before drones become commonplace in the civilian world, though.
“More and more, they’re pretty darn easy to fly, and the expertise is getting over the FAA requirements to be able to fly,” she said. “The idea is to get closer to the idea of a private pilot who can file a flight plan and go fly. The FAA is appropriately concerned that it is done very safely.”
About the drones
Drones, often known as unmanned aerial vehicles or unmanned aerial systems, have been around in the military for decades. In the Interior, Fort Wainwright has used them for about 10 years, U.S. Army Aviation Officer James Greenwood said. Fort Wainwright soldiers now use handheld Raven drones as well as a platoon of Shadows, larger vehicles with 14-foot wingspans. Both are weapon-less surveillance planes that have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. When not deployed, soldiers train with them above the military’s training area southeast of Fairbanks.
In the civilian world, the Geophysical Institute, part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is the only organization in the state that operates unmanned aerial vehicles.
The institute has used them for projects that include counting sea lions and helping the ship that traveled to the iced-in community of Nome last winter when it received its first winter maritime fuel delivery.
The Geophysical Institute has partnered on research with all three of the major oil companies, the fishing industry and the Tanana Chiefs Conference, which owns a drone for surveying but is not authorized to fly it because it is not a governmental entity.
The university’s drone program is run out of the Poker Flat Research Range on the Steese Highway, but it doesn’t take a rocket launching facility to get drones airborne. The smaller unmanned aerial vehicles can be launched by hand, while the larger ones are shot into the air using truck-sized launchers and are snagged by the wings as they fly by a cord on their return. The program uses five different types of vehicles, including the Raven (of which it has 160 from the Air Force) and its nine ScanEagles, long-distance endurance drones made by Boeing that weigh 40 pounds, can fly at 20,000 feet and can stay aloft for hours.
To use these devices, the Geophysical Institute must get special permission from the Federal Aviation Administration as an exception to its current aviation rules. It is a process Bailey said she knows well that involves getting approval well in advance of a flight and then follow-up communication with the Anchorage FAA office two days and then 30 minutes before flight time.
The regulation that makes drones the exception instead of the rule might soon change. In its budget for the FAA in February, Congress directed the FAA to pick six test sites for unmanned aerial vehicles around the country that will be used to test regulations for their use.
Choosing the sites has taken longer than expected, but the FAA’s test sites likely will be decided by the end of the year, said Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, who has been a cheerleader for the prospect of putting one of the test sites in Alaska, possibly using space left by the Air Force at Eielson Air Force Base.
Concerns about drones spying on Americans have delayed work on creating the six test sites, but Begich said privacy concerns are a good reason for why Alaska should be one of the states where the regulations are decided.
Besides the privacy concerns, there are technological ones.
Flying a drone is nothing like flying a plane, not only because drones are unmanned but also because they are more autonomous. Rather than being constantly steered, a drone is given a set of parameters then flies within them.
The instrument the drone is carrying can require more human attention than keeping the vehicle on course, Bailey said.
“You fly the camera with a joystick. You fly the airplane with a stylus on a screen,” she said. “You watch it to make sure it’s behaving properly, but you’re not flying it through that grid. It just does it automatically.”
When operating a drone within sight, operators usually work with a second person, a spotter, to keep an eye on the drone. Outside sight, the drones use radar to avoid other airborne objects.
Despite the enormous difference between manned and unmanned aircraft, setting rules to allow drones has the formal blessings of the existing aviation community, said Heidi Williams, vice president of air traffic services and modernization at the national Maryland-based Airplane Owners and Pilots Association.
“What we don’t want to continue to see is the trend that we’ve seen to date, which is segregation,” she said. “Airspace is never as infinite as perhaps we’d like to believe, and it’s really important that as we introduce new aircraft to the airspace that they co-exist with manned operations and do so safely.”
Contact staff writer Sam Friedman at 459-7545.