Drone project brings together Coast Guard, researchers, village leadership, and private partners in Fairbanks and Anchorage

A bird’s-eye-view of the land would be incredibly useful to the coastal community of Unalakleet in remote western Alaska. The view from above could map landscape changes, assist in responding to emergency scenarios, and support detailed inspection of critical infrastructure. But putting a pilot in a plane presents risks and costs money, making aerial photography and videography impractical for small communities interested in monitoring change locally. 

A drone training project led by AK CASC Deputy Director Jessica Garron could change that, bringing the skills and technology to address local needs such as search and rescue missions, aerial mapping, and monitoring changing coastlines into the hands of village leaders participating in the multi-year project. 

At UAF’s Poker Flat Research Range, northeast of Fairbanks, the team tested cold-weather procedures and pushed the capabilities of the UAS platform. Here the team is testing interference and protocols for simultaneous UAS deployment in the same airspace.

The “Remote Uncrewed Aircraft System (UAS) Inspection and Response Team Development in Bering Strait Region” project, sponsored by the Arctic Domain Awareness Center, a Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence, was launched in November of 2020 with the aim to train a set of UAS pilots in the remote, coastal, hub community of Unalakleet, AK to fly small UAS in support of local decision-making and USCG mission support. Members of the community of Unalakleet applied and were selected for participation in the program, received eight-weeks of remote training from UAF drone pilots and researchers on the safe and legal use of these remote sensing tools, followed by the successful completion of their FAA Part 107 Certification exams. After 10 months of weekly dedicated training and work sessions to develop long-term standard operating procedures for the Native Village of Unalakleet pilot team, the entire project team met in Fairbanks for hands-on training of the drones and mapping software that will be used in the community for aerial observations. The goal of the gathering: develop and demonstrate operating procedures which match community needs and learn more about the capabilities of this specific set of uncrewed aerial vehicles.

The journey to Fairbanks served a number of purposes for the project team. “Although we have been working together for over a year as a team, this one-week in November was the first time we were able to meet as a team in person due to the complexities of the global pandemic. It has been an amazing journey of learning and trust, so when we got together in Fairbanks, there were a lot of tears of joy and a lot of drone flights”, noted project PI and AK CASC Deputy Director Jessica Garron.

While software increased the capacities of the drones just days before the training, increasing stability as well as making estimates of scan length and size more reliable for pilots, this was the first opportunity for the team of pilots to come together as a group and practice 2D and 3D mapping using this technology. Becoming familiar with the hardware and software, control schemes, and protocols were all part of the exercises, along with building rapport and solidarity between the team members.

By the end of the week the team had worked through the process of launching, maneuvering, landing and maintaining the aircraft, as well as planning specific missions and leveraging data collection, processing and archiving protocols. At the end of the training three Skydio S2 uncrewed aerial systems returned with the pilots to Unalakleet, putting the technology and skills necessary for aerial mapping and modeling into the team’s hands.

 During the intensive hands-on training week, developers from the drone company Skydio arrived from San Francisco to engage with users of their drones directly for feedback on how the work and how they could be improved, while also providing training to the team and.demonstrating the capabilities of their more advanced system identified as the operational UAS for the community, the X2 which can fly further, higher, and with infrared sensor capabilities. 

 While the Skydio drones thrive in their ability to scan landscape features over vast distances and in challenging conditions, they are also capable vehicles in tight quarters, and indoor environments. Testing their skills in this setting, the Unalakleet trainees took drones to air to scan a piece of Alaska history in the Institute of Northern Engineering (INE) new High Bay facility: the historic Bus 142, which was relocated from its resting place in the Alaskan backcountry and is in the process of being prepared for permanent display at the UAF Museum of the North. Staff from the Alaska CASC, INE, the Museum of the North, and a curious group of undergraduate students watched the unique training experience as Unalakleet pilots scanned the historic bus to create a 3D model of the structure. This exercise supported one of the primary objectives of the project, training the Unalakleet pilots to 3D map critical infrastructure in their community.

The Skydio team demonstrates their UAS’ capabilities in the High Bay facility by 3D scanning the historic bus 142.

John Henry, Deputy Director of the Native Village of Unalakleet thinks that the deployment of Skydio’s two UAS versions has broadened rural Alaska entities’ capabilities. “We can leverage this technology to bridge the gap of obtaining geospatial data more readily and more cost efficiently in areas of emergency operations such as: river and coastal flooding; oil spill response; and search and rescue. I believe what was started in this week of training has the potential to impact rural communities statewide, guiding them into the next era of data gathering and assessment opportunities. Going forward, existing rural educational institutions and regional entities will need to be brought up to speed on FAA certification and on the availability of funding, to ensure that this promising opportunity gets the much needed attention required for the betterment of Alaska statewide.

The breadth of experiences of the team from conversations indoors to training and practice outdoors demonstrates the wide array of applications of drone technology to rural communities in coastal Alaska. It also shows the value that this project can bring to communities and funders like the U.S. Coast Guard who strive to work collaboratively with the communities and environments that they serve and protect. “Having communities assist the U.S. Coast Guard by flying UAS to collect images and other data for situational awareness pre and post disaster, and/or provide regulated facility status to our inspectors is a game changer in our ability to provide the necessary services to both the citizens of rural Alaska as well as the regulated community.” Said Commander Jereme Altendorf, Arctic Emergency Management Specialist for Sector Anchorage. “Collaboration between the Coast Guard and rural Alaska communities in order to bring greater maritime domain awareness is clearly a need, and we are excited to provide assistance and support to this effort.”

Two versions of the Skydio X2 UAS platform (left and center) alongside their S2 platform (right).

To read more about recent drone work done by the Unalakleet and CASC drone groups read this more recent story about drone work in Western Alaska in the wake of Typhoon Merbok.