UAF Gets a Federal Boost for Unmanned Aircraft

The FAA last week named University of Alaska Fairbanks a “Center of Excellence” for research on unmanned aircraft. Actually, UAF is part of a group of universities, led by Mississippi State, that make up the Center of Excellence. They’re charged with helping the FAA figure out how to integrate the unmanned machines in the national airspace. It’s still not clear if much federal money will follow.

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Marty Rogers, director of UAF’s unmanned aircraft program, says the coalition of universities has more unmanned aircraft than the U.S. Air Force. Rogers says UAF alone owns at least 120.

“We have a very active unmanned aircraft program. This is our 14th year of operations. We fly over 150 days a year,” he said. “Much of it’s in Alaska. Some of it is out of Alaska.”

In 2013, UAF was chosen to run one of the national drone test ranges. Rogers says this is different.

“The award now of the center of excellence is sort of a different animal in that — unlike the test sites, which were not funded by the federal government — this is actually a funded activity, so it’s on a one-to-one match.”

UAF has commercial clients, and is already bringing in the kind of non-federal revenues that can serve as the match. Rogers said he couldn’t name names, but among their customers are companies that want to use drones to sniff pipelines for methane leaks.

“Our real focus areas are typically the Arctic, with an emphasis on low-altitude safety, beyond line-of-sight operations, and against that long-range Arctic work we do for science and research,” he said.

In the Lower 48, privacy is a huge concern with drones. (And, by the way, the people interested in expanding drone use in America dislike the word “drone,” which has military connotations. These days, they prefer UAS, for Unmanned Aircraft Systems.) Some worry the aircraft will become Big Brother in the sky. Rogers says in Alaska they stick to unpopulated areas.

“Our big thing is actually when we’re flying marine mammal missions, is not disturbing the wildlife,” he said.

Most of their unmanned aircraft weigh just a few pounds and have electric motors, so Rogers says they’re not too bothersome.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, at a press conference to announce the “center of excellence” designation, talked up the state’s wide open spaces as a selling point.

“You want to talk about your ability to engage in low-altitude flying? The landscape there on the North Slope and moving out onto the ocean there is about as flat as this floor,” she said. “There’s no bumps. There’s no hills. There’s no nothing in the way. So you have a lot of room to test.”

How generous Congress will be with this Center of Excellence is up in the air.

“Well, the bad news is we’re out of money,” says Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Mississippi. He says it’s a worthy cause but he couldn’t commit to any dollar amount of future funding.

So far, the Center of Excellence has $5 million, which doesn’t go far if it’s split among all six universities in the group.