By Heidi Zemach for SCN –
You may have already seen them being flown in Seward by drone hobbyists, hovering above the Mount Marathon Race taking photos, or rising up crowd scenes at Lowell Point during the filming of the movie Sugar Mountain. Like it or not, drones are already here. Their use will increase exponentially in Alaska regardless of whether they’re deemed legal for commercial use by the Federal Aviation Administration or how they are regulated in the winter of 2015 rules regulating their use, said Brandon Anderson, a retired Alaska State Trooper.
Anderson told a small but receptive audience at the Brewers and Doer’s discussion group at Zudy’s Restaurant July 24th that Seward could be in an ideal position to become an “unmanned hub” for these drones, otherwise known as “unmanned aerial systems” or “vehicles” as many would now prefer to call them due to the “drone’s” more negative connotations of big-brother spying or their use for warfare.
“Brewers and Doers” is a series of monthly local discussions about Seward’s economic-development potential over beer and refreshments, initiated by the Seward Chamber of Commerce-sponsored “Strategic Doing” process. In a presentation named “Drones for Peace”, Anderson carefully laid out his case.
First, he explained that Alaska is uniquely situated in the field of unmanned systems, and that many entrepreneurs like him are moving here to be in a good position to begin operating when they become legal for commercial use. That date could be September 30th, 2015, the most recent federal deadline imposed for the FAA to announce the regulations or restrictions that will both define them, govern their use, and allow the expanded use of military and commercial unmanned aerial systems.
Second, the University of Alaska, Fairbanks has been heavily involved in the research and development of unmanned systems, their potential uses, and their safety. In December 2013, FAA selected six state test sites in the U.S. for testing commercial drones, and Alaska (under UAF’s leadership) was designated as the key site due to UAF’s expertise and reputation in the field. All potential tests in the other five test sites in the U.S. must have the university’s blessing, Anderson said. In May, under the new designation, UAF’s Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Integration, which operates the university’s drone program, tested a drone for its accuracy in tallying caribou (and other wildlife) populations. Other projects include a technique for surveying whales that collects data by flying through their spouts, and volcano flybys. The university center plans testing areas at UAF, the Poker Flat Rocket Range on the Steese Highway, sites near Barrow, Kodiak’s rocket launch complex, and in Homer. The university has also partnered with Oregon and Hawaii for test sites at two small airports in Oregon and a coastal location in Hawaii. The center has eight different types of unmanned aircraft and has a fleet of more than 100 drones, according to center director Marty Rogers.
As important as UAF’s role in the research is, Anderson argues it’s not the university’s mission to compete with those in private industry who wish to exploit this exciting new technology, and provide jobs in the field. He believes that private industry should step up and take the lead—and position itself to offer the drones and training expertise and be ready to run with it when they are allowed for commercial purposes. In other countries, such as Canada, governments have decided not to regulate them the commercial use of these private unmanned systems have proliferated.
That’s where Seward’s potential stakeholders coordinating their efforts and working together with business to create a hub of activity could prove invaluable, Anderson said. The agencies and entities already in Seward who might want to participate include AVTEC – Alaska’s Institute of Technology, the Alaska SeaLife Center, the Seward Marine Industrial Center, and the R/V Sikuliaq, the global research vessel soon to be home-ported in town. Partners would be troopers, police, fire departments, and the U.S. Coast Guard. The Kenai Fjords National Park Service and Forest Service also might be interested.
Experts in the field of drone technology and education, with whom he has discussed the concept, could be invited to Seward to provide such training, or one of AVTEC’s departments might want to take on the training of the future unmanned aerial systems operators of Alaska Anderson said.
AVTEC already provides Alaska’s maritime training and certification, including ice-navigation, and marine vessel firefighting, he said. The Sealife center’s researchers and marine mammal rescuers also stand to benefit from having close access to Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) training, and learning how to operate drones to track and photograph certain marine mammals. The Seward Marine Industrial Center (SMIC) is under initial development as the northernmost Alaska ice-free harbor, and is a potential hub for Arctic exploration and transportation. It is also improving its status as a global vessel repair and maintenance facility. Anderson can foresee potential applications for unmanned aerial technology in those areas. Locally-based trained UAS experts could help the Coast Guard to get quick eyes on distress calls at sea, or help the Alaska State Troopers, police, or volunteer fire departments locate missing persons in remote areas.
Anderson, who used to fly on missions with the trooper’s search and rescue helicopter, is setting up a home-based company, Alaska Unmanned Aerial Systems, LLC, to provide small UAS services for public safety and industry. He’s seeking private internet loans to help finance this endeavor, but would ideally like to see a large permanent warehouse or hanger created as a center dedicated to the storage of drones, and education of drone operators: a sort of drone-rental business—where public or private agencies would contract for specific drones and operators to run them would be available for hire. An ideal center would be Lucky Wilson’s aircraft storage hanger at the Seward airport, which is for sale.
Anderson also suggested that Seward host an annual robotics competition for youth, perhaps similar to the Tsunami Ocean Bowl contest in which teens from schools across the state flock to Seward to compete on the subject of marine science and Alaska fisheries.
His ideas, specifically the potential for development already in place, appeared to be enthusiastically received by the attendees, including Cindy Clock, Seward Chamber of Commerce’s executive director, and Walter Sedlick, who attended with his wife Fran. Sedlick builds and flies drones as a hobby. He has a pilot’s license and worked for the FAA for 30 years. He said he’d hate to see the FAA get involved in regulating these things. City Building Inspector Don Sutherland, another amateur pilot, also has been following the rise of the exciting new technology, but said little.
Clock noted that local students (from Kindergarten through high school) have been studying Lego-robotics, engineering, and coding and programming through the new vocational STEM program, and that there had been a tremendous surge of excitement in this area. However, when someone asked the chamber for permission to fly a drone over the Mount Marathon Race this year, they were denied because the chamber was concerned over liability should there be an accident.