FAA OKs drone flights at Alaska testing range


ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The Federal Aviation Administration announced Monday it has granted authorization to the University of Alaska to begin test flights of unmanned aircraft as part of its research into the challenges of integrating drones into U.S. air space.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta at a press conference said his agency is not concerned with how drones will be used but how they will be flown safely in the air space now used by pilots with passengers.

“The overriding priority needs to be safe integration,” he said.

The FAA announced in December that it had picked the University of Alaska as one of six testing sites in the nation for drone research. The six were picked to give the FAA a wide range of geography, climate, infrastructure and airspace use.

The University of Alaska’s Pan-Pacific Unmanned Aircraft System Test Range Complex will have testing sites at two small airports in Oregon and a coast location in Hawaii. Within Alaska, test sites are planned at UA Fairbanks, the Poker Flat Rocket Range, and sites near Barrow, Kodiak and Homer, said Ro Bailey the complex director.

The university marked Monday’s announcement with a quick flight of an Aeryon Scout, a roughly 5-pound unmanned aircraft that flew for five minutes over the UA Fairbanks Large Animal Research Station just two miles from Fairbanks International Airport.

The camera-packing drone flew at under 200 feet to predetermined way points and beamed back live images. It will be tested for suitability of use in a persistent challenge facing Alaska scientists and wildlife managers: counting populations of caribou, moose, bear and other animals in the country’s largest and wildest state.

The FAA’s mandate from Congress is to demonstrate safe integration of unmanned by September 2015.

“We need to think about this as an evolutionary process, that we’re able to demonstrate the conditions, the qualifications of the operator, the systems that support them, that if certain conditions are met, it is in fact safe,” Huerta said.

Among the challenges will be coming up with safety rules for flying drones in areas where aircraft is governed my Visual Flight Rules, and where pilots rely on seeing other aircraft to avoid.

“VFR conditions are premised on a doctrine of ‘see and avoid,’” he said. “Can they see it? Are they able to interact with each other? And are things different as a result of the operator being remote?”

In the Fairbanks demonstration Monday, there was the added element of interacting with air traffic controllers in controlled air space, Huerta said.

Eventual rules might change from “see and avoid” to “sense and avoid” through a requirement for drones to send a signal that can be detected by other aircraft, Huerta said.

Among the other challenges: what to do when there’s a “loss of link” between the drone and the operator on the ground and drones are suddenly flying on their own.

The research at Alaska and the five other national test sites is critical because of the rapidly expanding uses for unmanned aircraft.

“It’s a big deal,” Huerta said. “It’s a very big deal.”