UAF led team conducts first unmanned aircraft beyond line of sight flight in the country

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FAIRBANKS, Alaska - A team led by the University of Alaska Fairbanks has completed the country’s first FAA-approved true beyond-visual-line-of-sight domestic flight of an unmanned aircraft system under the small UAS rule.

The flight is a step toward gaining more routine Federal Aviation Administration approval of commercial beyond-visual-line-of-sight unmanned aircraft flights. Such approval could allow organizations to use unmanned aircraft to monitor pipelines and other infrastructure in Alaska and the rest of the United States.

Operators from the university’s Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration flew a Skyfront Perimeter long range hybrid-electric unmanned aircraft 3.87 miles along the pipeline corridor, starting at a location near the Chatanika River on the Elliott Highway.

During the flight, the team used onboard and ground-based detection systems, instead of human observers, to detect and avoid other aircraft in the airspace. Those included Iris Automation’s Casia, an onboard collision avoidance technology, and a 5-nautical-mile system consisting of eight ground-based Echodyne radars, which provided aviation radar coverage along the flight path. The detect-and-avoid systems prevent an unmanned aircraft from colliding with a manned aircraft. They will be key to the FAA approving the use of unmanned aircraft beyond the visual line of sight.

"The ability to use UAVs for surveillance in remote areas of the pipeline increases the tools at our disposal to operate TAPS more reliably and safely and better protect Alaska’s environment. This innovative step forward will advance safe performance not just in our industry, but in multiple disciplines and workspaces across the country,” said Tom Barrett, president of Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., which operates the trans-Alaska pipeline system.

The flights were a part of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program, a national initiative from the U.S. Department of Transportation and the White House. The IPP was created by a presidential memorandum to help integrate unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace at or below 400 feet, and find ways to safely fly unmanned aircraft beyond visual line of sight, carry out night operations and operate over people. All of these are currently restricted under FAA regulations.

“The Integration Pilot Program is helping us advance the safe, secure and reliable integration of drones into the national airspace,” said FAA Acting Administrator Daniel K. Elwell. “This important milestone in Alaska gets us closer to that goal.”

Iris Automation CEO and co-founder Alexander Harmsen said, “This is the first time that detect-and-avoid technology is approved by an aviation authority as reliable enough to allow for BVLOS drone operations. We’re grateful for the FAA’s continued push to recognize and understand how these technologies will enable the successful and safe integration of UAS into our lives and businesses.”

The Alaska IPP goals include enabling routine monitoring flights of both the trans-Alaska oil pipeline and Hilcorp Alaska's Swanson River Oil Pipeline, and delivering medical supplies to remote areas. The partners also have an overall goal of enabling operations beyond the line of sight across Alaska 24 hours a day, all year long.

"The integration of unmanned aircraft into America’s skies just took another important step toward realization,” said Cathy Cahill, director of ACUASI, which is part of the UAF Geophysical Institute. “These first flights demonstrated that new technology can provide a route toward safe beyond-visual-line-of-sight operation of unmanned aircraft in Alaska. We want to ensure the safety of manned aviation while opening new opportunities for unmanned aircraft cargo deliveries to villages, monitoring of infrastructure, mammal surveys and a host of other missions of use to Alaskans.”