Even with the rapid growth of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) or drones, one of the FAA’s primary rules is that the pilot must maintain visual line of sight with the unmanned aircraft at all times. When waivers were granted for “extended line of sight” operations, visual observers on the ground were still required. Those operational constraints are about to change.
Collaborative projects between private industry and the Universities of Alaska-Fairbanks and Hawaii are transforming dreams into reality for the unmanned aircraft community. These technological accomplishments are laying the foundations to provide vital services to rural and outlying communities through long-distance search and rescue, surveying and telecommunications platforms mounted onboard solar powered drones.
Alaska Pipeline Inspections
In 2017, the Dept. of Transportation created the UAS Integration Pilot Program (UASIPP) to encourage collaboration amongst state, local, and tribal governments and the private sector in order to accelerate the safe integration of drones into the national airspace system. Each of the ten sites in the UASIPP has different mission that focus on specific industries and community concerns and technologies. The University of Alaska-Fairbanks is one of the ten UASIPP sites, and focuses on pipeline inspections and surveying in remote areas and harsh climates. (The mission focus for each of the ten UASIPP sites can be found here.)
On July 31, 2019, the University of Alaska-Fairbanks (Fairbanks) conducted the first test flight of an unmanned aircraft Beyond Visual Line of Slight (BVLOS) without ground observers. The test flight’s mission was to inspect a four-mile segment of the Trans-Alaska pipeline. The test flight utilized ground-based radar and onboard computer vision collision avoidance technology to meet its ‘Sense and Avoid’ obligations for safety of flight. The technology not only had to integrate data from the ground-based and onboard sensors to detect, track and classify objects that were in the air, the technology had to ensure the aircraft maintained the correct altitude above the pipeline as the ground elevation and terrain fluctuated over the four mile flight.
Solar Powered UAS Hawaii
In addition to its low-altitude pipeline inspection flight, Alaska-Fairbanks is collaborating with the University of Hawaii to perform UAS test flights in the stratosphere with HAPSMobile, the Japanese manufacturer of the HAWK30 solar powered UAS. HAPSMobile seeks to install a telecommunications system onboard High Altitude Platform Stations (HAPS) that will fly in the earth’s stratosphere (at approximately 65,000 feet) on solar powered drones that can remain in flight for several months at a time.
Alaska Fairbanks applied for a COA2 Certificate of Authorization from the FAA on behalf of the three parties, and last week received the authorization to fly the HAWK30 in the stratosphere above the Hawaiian island of Lanai. The testing will be done through the Pan-Pacific UAS Test Range Complex (PPUTRC), which is run by public university research institutions and managed by Alaska-Fairbanks. The Hawk30 test flights during 2019 will focus on safety verifications and coordinating with local authorities. According to HAPSMobile’s CEO, the company’s long-term goals from the test flights are to contribute to Linai’s agriculture and environmental conservation efforts while designing airborne infrastructure to improve mobile communication networks.
Follow-On Benefits from these Milestones
Alaska-Fairbanks sees other beneficial uses for BVLOS operations to serve people remote areas, such as delivering medical devices and monitoring roads and other infrastructure for damage or obstacles. One of the primary benefits of solar-powered UAS are exceptionally long dwell times, which enable them to serve as communications platforms in parts of the world that do not have traditional cellphone tower infrastructure, or when the existing infrastructure has been damaged during a natural disaster.