Sci-Friday: Fairbanks scientist appointed to Federal Aviation Association Drone Advisory Committee.

Published: Feb. 5, 2021 at 4:11 PM AKST
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) -For this Sci-Friday we take a look at the future of unmanned aircraft in Alaska with the Federal Aviation Administration’s newest Drone Advisory Committee member.

Dr. Catherine Cahill, director of the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration (ACUASI) with the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) Geophysical Institute was recently appointed to the Federal Aviation Administration’s Drone Advisory Committee. Out of 70 candidates nominated to serve on the committee, Cahill is the only Alaska representative.

“Our team is doing stuff that is going to have a direct impact on the rest of the state. It’s exciting, and we’re at the cutting edge. I’m supposed to be representing the community of people operating in this area and getting that advice - the best practices, what are the challenges - into the FAA,” said Cahill.

According to Cahill, drone use can provide substantial services to Alaska, including cargo delivery to remote villages, medical supply delivery, monitoring of pipelines and other critical infrastructure, as well as scientific research. “We are working with Alaska air carriers to see how we can integrate unmanned aircraft into the Alaska airspace, improve aviation safety, and get people goods on a more regular basis - really designed at how we can improve the quality of life in the communities by decreasing costs, [or] increasing the amount of fresh vegetables you can get. We like to say diapers and milk aren’t sexy, but they’re essential.”

Before the full extent of these drone integration benefits can be realized, Cahill and the ACUASI have several technological challenges to overcome. Including the development of an onboard safety technology called the detect and avoid system to prevent collision with manned aircraft. Cahill said, “The whole purpose is if we ever lose our communication link with our unmanned aircraft, the aircraft by itself will be able to spot the other aircraft and avoid. So even though we aren’t in communication with that aircraft for that moment for whatever reason, the aircraft is still incredibly safe.”

Testing is also being performed to improve the command and control link systems used to control unmanned aircraft at long range via satellite signals. “All of these things are really needed to break one specific regulatory challenge, and it’s called beyond visual line of sight. How strong your communications link is, the detect and avoid, all of these go into the ‘Can I fly beyond visual line of sight, know where my aircraft is, know that my aircraft will not hit anything, and be able to do the operations hundreds of miles from where I’m piloting the aircraft?’” said Cahill.

Over the next 4 years, tests ranging from small medical shipments across Fairbanks, to large cargo shipments across the 275 mile stretch to Galena, Alaska will be carried out to incrementally prove the safety and benefits of integrating drones into Alaskan airspace

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