UAF’s ACUASI program successfully flies drone from Nenana to Fairbanks in milestone development

Published: Oct. 7, 2023 at 10:52 AM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - In early Sept. the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft System Integration or ACUASI, flew a drone from the Nenana Municipal Airport to Fairbanks International Airport, making it the first ever drone flight involving two classes or air space.

Autonomous vehicles and delivery drones appear to be on the horizon with cars, aircraft, and watercraft all integrating autonomous technology. As this technology develops, the impacts will undoubtedly provide significant developments in the world of air cargo delivery, which is something Alaska has a critical need for.

“So as we’re looking at pilot shortages and the fact that we’re not getting fruits and vegetables to the villages on a routine basis. We’re looking for how can we supplement the current air cargo activities here in Alaska,” said Dr. Cathy Cahill, the director of the ACUASI program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Dr. Cahill and the ACUASI program have been conducting experimental flights such as this to improve delivery to rural Alaska.

The recent experimental flight from Nenana to Fairbanks was part of the program’s ongoing efforts to develop the commercial drone industry. This particular flight being used to “demonstrate cargo delivery potential in the future,” Cahill said.

Drones are certainly one option and one with great promise since they lack daylight restrictions.

The milestone flight was achieved through the use of both a ground crew and a helicopter that followed the drone. “The follow helicopter has a person on board who’s entire purpose is to keep their eyes on that aircraft and they are in direct communication with the pilot of that aircraft,” Cahill said. This ensures that the drone doesn’t collide with another vehicle or object if the autonomous systems on the drone fail.

The ground crew is however in contact with FAI to assist in the prevention of a collision. “We talk to ATC (air traffic control) like any other aircraft and so when we’ve done flights out of FAI, we’ve been told we are just like any other aircraft in terms of our communications,” Cahill explained.

The flight also presented the team an opportunity to explore how commercial operations might work. Such being the goal of the program, but much remains unknown as there aren’t any drones that qualify for cargo operations. In this case it meant handing off control of the drone from one pilot to another. Such a method is just one of the many ways that drones might be utilized in cargo operations in the future.

While the future operations of drone based cargo operations has a long way to go, Cahill said she believes that it will have major positive impacts to Alaska’s economy. “I think where there is going to be a lot of potential for jobs in remote communities because this is going to be an essential function.” Many of those jobs coming in the form of ground crew members responsible for the handling of the cargo, maintenance and more.

Future prospects for the economy that we might see in the coming years.

There remains a great deal of work and experimentation to be done before any drones are being used to deliver necessities to any location. Cahill believes commercial operations that want to utilize drones in such capacity could be a reality in the next decade.