Geophysical Institute and NASA pair up for drone mission

Published: Jun. 7, 2017 at 5:54 PM AKDT
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The University of Alaska Fairbanks' West Ridge was the site of a collaboration between NASA and the Geophysical Institute.

On June 6, members of the Geophysical Institute's Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration, or ACUASI, along with members of NASA prepared for a mission to fly two unmanned aircraft on the UAF campus. One drone was built by NASA, while the other was built by faculty, staff, and students of ACUASI. Both drones flew simultaneously with unmanned aircraft at Poker Flats and other unmanned aircraft in 6 other states. The purpose of the exercise was to promote safety and establish protocols for commercial unmanned aircraft flying in manned aircraft airspace. Program Manager of the event, Michael Hatfield discusses the collaboration and how the university strives to increase awareness and education about unmanned aircraft vehicles.

"This effort is a collaboration between the FAA, NASA, all the six different test sites. Here within the university we utilize UAV's for our research and for public service missions. Here at ACUASI, we also have an educational department. I'm in the department of Electrical Engineering, and we have a UAV program down there, and we also have clubs and activities designed to get students involved with UAV's, and actually build some of the UAV's that we fly here," said Hatfield.

Chief Pilot, Nick Adkins oversaw the two pilots flying the drones, while communicating with the two UAV's that were flown at Poker Flats. He explains how and why the UAV's gathered footage as they hovered near and around the satellite dish on the top of the Geophysical Institute.

"We're going to be filming our aircraft filming that to get some footage from the Inspire down there with Joseph Rife flying. Karen Bollinger will be flying the Ptarmigan and filming the satellite. At the same time, we'll also be flying and reporting to NASA UTM with the guys that are flying out at Poker with two different aircraft, the S900 and the S1000. So those aircraft will all be flying at the same time and all reporting back to NASA," said Adkins.

NASA Flight Test and Evaluation Lead, Dr. Marcus Johnson explains that this is not the first time that the ACUASI and NASA have tested UAS flight for FAA regulations. He goes on to explain why this second flight test is different from the last, and what it plans to accomplish for commercial unmanned aircraft.

"We're starting to press the bounds on what can be done in terms of operating outside the line of sight of the pilot in command, enabling future operations, such as package delivery, infrastructure inspection, the envisioned operations that folks hear about in the media. And this is kind of one of the first steps in understanding what is needed in order to understand those operations," Johnson said.

To learn more about commercial unmanned aircraft in Alaska, go to