Unmanned aerial flight proves why university research matters

Alaska is on the cutting edge of an aviation revolution that promises to make our lives better and change the way we think about flight — and it’s thanks to university research.

A team led by the University of Alaska Fairbanks Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration made history last summer by successfully flying the country’s first civilian test of an unmanned aircraft that went beyond the line of sight. Why was this so groundbreaking? The Federal Aviation Administration requires an unmanned aircraft to fly within sight of a pilot who must keep an eye on it all times.

But on July 31, 2019, the UAF squad flew the unmanned Skyfront Perimeter quad-copter 3.87 miles along the trans-Alaska oil pipeline north of Fairbanks near the Chatanika River with onboard and ground-based detect-and-avoid technology that let it fly without crashing into anything — without help from a pilot or human observers. This was all done by technology. Remarkable.

The limit to what unmanned aircraft can do for Alaska is sky high. It may be more important here than anywhere else on the planet thanks to our vast distances, lack of roads, and bad weather that can test the best of pilots. Imagine using this technology to fly medical supplies into fogged-in towns, deliver cargo to remote sites, carry on search-and-rescue missions, survey earthquake damage to buildings, roads, and bridges, keep an eye on volcanoes, wildfires, and potential avalanches, monitor oil pipelines and electric interties, and track moose, caribou, and salmon populations.

And this newfangled technology is being developed here. The innovations. The tests. The breakthroughs. The opportunities. Right here in the Interior, led by our very own University of Alaska Fairbanks Research.

Let’s remember that as we work our way through tough fiscal times and debate the important role the university plays in our state, its future, and what it can do for Alaska. It saddens me if we were to take for granted the great research done here in Alaska by Alaskans for Alaskans. Some may grouse that it’s being done by a bunch of “greenies” trying to “lock up the Arctic,” but that’s far from the truth. In fact, the university helps oil companies learn how to work in an environment that constantly changes. The drilling and construction season on the North Slope is shrinking. This limits oil production, thus hurting our state budget. University research helps oil companies be more efficient and maximize what they can do during shorter work periods — thus helping the state’s bottom line.

As anyone who’s followed Alaska politics for the past year can tell you, we’re in challenging times. We talk about being open for business and making Alaska more attractive to companies that bring in good jobs. If we’re going to say “no” to developing new and needed technologies to survive in the North, what makes us think entrepreneurs will want to come here? Don’t we want to benefit from innovation being done for Alaskans by Alaskans who shop in Alaska stores, buy coffee at Alaska coffee huts, drink local beer, and pay property taxes here? Or do we want it done outside Alaska, with no funding that stays here?

Are we ready to throw away more than 100 years of research? No. Arctic research must continue. And it must continue here with the University of Alaska leading the way.

If we are truly interested in being open for business, the best way to do it is to show the world that we mean it, that we put our money where our mouth is and are committed to educating children, youth, and adults at all levels, that we provide educational opportunities to excel and make breakthroughs like the university research team did last summer with the successful flight of the Skyfront Perimeter. This is the path to a successful future that extends far, far beyond any line-of-sight.

Sen. Click Bishop is a Republican from Fairbanks. His district includes parts of Fairbanks, Nenana, the Denali Borough, and the Upper Yukon River region.

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