Alaska aviators: Is that a drone in your airspace?

Is that a drone in your airspace? Alaska’s skies may be Ground Zero for an FAA test project to transition drones into the broader domestic airspace.Aaron Jansen illustration

As the national conversation builds about what drones should and should not be used for in the U.S. (along with some crazy ideas about how to deal with them) it’s a problem that pilots will want to consider in flight planning. In coming years, drone use is likely to drastically increase in Alaska airspace and carries enormous economic potential, contributing as much as $90 billion to the U.S. economy and potentially creating as many as 100,000 new jobs in the next decade, by some estimates.

The FAA has issued a Fact Sheet on Unmanned Aircraft Systems — drone — activity which provides an overview of their use and the FAA’s role in issuing certificates of use and ensuring public safety. The actual regulations on drones are still being drafted but UAS operators are already required to provide detailed information about proposed activity to the FAA for approval prior to flight and must also adhere to other specific rules. “We can only operate in visual meteorological conditions,” explains Greg Walker, University of Alaska Unmanned Aircraft Program Manager, “and must have an individual with the team whose only function is to ‘see and avoid’ other aircraft.” Some unmanned aircraft are equipped with radar allowing another layer of flight safety.

“Our main task is to ‘do no harm’, when it comes to other aircraft,” states Tim Barnes, a support contractor with the UA program, “and we are constantly practicing innovative solutions to see other aircraft even if they are flying low, not using transponders, etc.”

Walker and his team were in King Salmon during the height of summer flying season this year and are aware of how busy Alaskan airspace can become. However, they also often operate in areas that see low flight activity, such as 150 kilometers offshore at only 300 feet altitude, where engagement with other aircraft is rare. This is the nature of the sort of programs Alaskan drones are involved in, which includes everything from sea ice monitoring, wildlife research and management, emergency response support for oil spills and wildfires to assisting in ship navigation through sea ice. Also, the first commercial permits for drone use were recently granted for operation. One will operate in the Chukchi Sea on Alaska’s northwest Arctic coast for ConocoPhillips, the state’s largest oil producer. The other drone is not yet officially aligned with a specific oil company.

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