UA to study integrating drones into U.S. airspace

JUNEAU — News that Alaska has been chosen as a test site for the integration of drones into U.S. airspace is being welcomed by state political leaders.

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said the initiative will bring jobs, resources and a new mission to the University of Alaska system. It also will help lay the foundation for other new economic activity “and put our state on the world map when it comes to this exciting emerging technology,” he said in a statement.

Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, who is chairman of the Aerospace States Association, said drones can help save lives and promote scientific research and resource development in Alaska. He said in a statement that maintaining individual privacy and safety “continue to be our priority, and we’re working to ensure they are never compromised.”

The Federal Aviation Administration announced Monday that the University of Alaska was among six test-site operators chosen to research the requirements necessary to safely integrate drones, or unmanned aircraft systems, into U.S. airspace.

The Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration at the University of Alaska Fairbanks will oversee the work, which includes test sites in Alaska, Hawaii and Oregon. Center founder and director Greg Walker said the Alaska test sites will include work in the Interior on how to integrate drones in and around airports and at Prudhoe Bay, on how to safely integrate the technology into an industrial environment. He said the center was working with Oregon and Hawaii on what officials there want to do with their sites.

Walker said his team in Alaska has been far ahead of most of the rest of the country in studying how drone technology can be used for civilian activities. It has been researching the viability of use of drones for things like oil spill response, wildlife surveys, highway construction and fisheries management, he said.

FAA’s decision will open more opportunities to expand the research, he said.

The Alaska Legislature previously provided $5 million for drone research and development at the university. State Rep. Shelley Hughes, who co-chairs a legislative task force for unmanned aircraft systems, said the panel has been studying the state’s responsibility regarding privacy concerns and would make recommendations to the Legislature to protect the public.

“Alaska continues to be a leader in aviation, and this is the next wave,” she said in a statement. “It makes sense to use UAS for the dull, dirty, and dangerous tasks.”