Drones Becoming Easier to Fly, but Safety, Privacy Issues Leave Their Everyday Use Uncertain
A ScanEagle waits on a catapult before launch in Al Asad, Iraq. A small detachment of Marines and civilians is deployed in Al Asad to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in western Iraq. The detachment is from Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 2, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, Cherry Point, N.C.
FAIRBANKS — Three types of unmanned drones shared the smoky airspace with two manned planes over a controlled burn this fall in Florida.
Ro Bailey, a special project coordinator with the Alaska Geophysical Institute, flew a smoke-detector-sized helicopter, known as the Aeron Scout, from the ground using a tablet and a stylus. Because of the crowded airspace, she was given directions to keep her vehicle under a ceiling of 150 feet.
The operation was successful at collecting data from the fire, and just as important for drone researchers in Alaska, it demonstrated that manned and unmanned craft can co-exist, at least under heavily controlled circumstances, she said.
There remain privacy and safety concerns to be resolved before drones become commonplace in the civilian world, though.
“More and more, they’re pretty darn easy to fly, and the expertise is getting over the FAA requirements to be able to fly,” she said. “The idea is to get closer to the idea of a private pilot who can file a flight plan and go fly. The FAA is appropriately concerned that it is done very safely.”
About the drones
Drones, often known as unmanned aerial vehicles or unmanned aerial systems, have been around in the military for decades. In the Interior, Fort Wainwright has used them for about 10 years, U.S. Army Aviation Officer James Greenwood said. Fort Wainwright soldiers now use handheld Raven drones as well as a platoon of Shadows, larger vehicles with 14-foot wingspans. Both are weapon-less surveillance planes that have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. When not deployed, soldiers train with them above the military’s training area southeast of Fairbanks.
In the civilian world, the Geophysical Institute, part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is the only organization in the state that operates unmanned aerial vehicles.
The institute has used them for projects that include counting sea lions and helping the ship that traveled to the iced-in community of Nome last winter when it received its first winter maritime fuel delivery.
The Geophysical Institute has partnered on research with all three of the major oil companies, the fishing industry and the Tanana Chiefs Conference, which owns a drone for surveying but is not authorized to fly it because it is not a governmental entity.
The university’s drone program is run out of the Poker Flat Research Range on the Steese Highway, but it doesn’t take a rocket launching facility to get drones airborne. The smaller unmanned aerial vehicles can be launched by hand, while the larger ones are shot into the air using truck-sized launchers and are snagged by the wings as they fly by a cord on their return. The program uses five different types of vehicles, including the Raven (of which it has 160 from the Air Force) and its nine ScanEagles, long-distance endurance drones made by Boeing that weigh 40 pounds, can fly at 20,000 feet and can stay aloft for hours.