ACUASI drones push boundaries of unmanned flight in Alaska

(Photo courtesy of ACUASI)
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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - North Carolina has the Wright brothers -- but Alaska has ACUASI.

UAF’s Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft System Integration, or ACUASI, is putting Alaska on the cutting edge of drone research and capabilities, even though most residents have never heard of it.

“It’s really exciting -- it’s especially exciting whenever Alaska can lead the nation in the technology space,” says Tom Barrett of Alyeska Pipeline Drones.

ACUASI made history in the United States on July 31 when it partnered with the Alyeska Pipeline to fly an unmanned aircraft 3.8 miles to survey the pipeline project. While that might not sound like anything groundbreaking, that sort of distance is rarer than you’d think.

The organization was hand selected and was granted special permission by the FAA. Their rules normally require a pilot to be able to physically see any aircraft they are operating.

“So the fact that they are letting us take this next step and go beyond what out pilot can see is a huge step and it is going to be essential for Alaska,” says Barrett.

The project is not only a milestone for unmanned aircraft, it also could be an economic game-changer in a state that embodies remoteness and inaccessibility. Monitoring the pipeline, which is required at regular intervals, is one obvious application.

“We have 400 miles of above ground line, 800 miles of a total system, we want to use this as much as it makes sense across the entire system,” says Barrett about the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

“The estimate from the FAA is in the billions. This transformational technology if you think about all the ways people are looking for delivery or railroad track monitoring or pipeline monitoring or wildlife surveying. This is going to be a billion dollar industry,” says Barrett.

It could also save lives.

“It’s safer: we put a lot of people out to do this. We’ve got people climbing over rocks, walking ice on rivers. We can get the same kind of information, data without putting people at risk,” says Barrett.

There are also less obvious applications, from transporting cargo across the state, to getting medicine to remote places and even surveying wildlife in places hard to reach by man.

But Alaska does have some competition. The same group has been working in Canada for a number of years doing unmanned flights spanning even longer distances.

“We are working very closely with their government in how to advance it and they have been more proactive in letting us do long distance like hundreds of kilometers beyond visual line of sight flights,” says Barrett.

Alaska does have an advantage: the FAA wants to study these flights without the risk of populations below and look at how they operate in our colder climate.

ACUASI anticipates seeing the first commercial flights transporting cargo or surveying areas to happen in the next few years.

As far and transporting people -- that could take generations.

ACUASI is operated and partially funded by the university system and with recent budget cuts they say it could slow down their development, but they are confident more partners like the Alyeska Pipeline will come forward and help their development.

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