Drones in the North

Alaska is ahead of the curve

You’ve probably read some of the media hype around drones firing missiles at terrorists or delivering hot Thai food to hungry Stanford computer science students.

But there are some underhyped things drones could do here in the North.

We’re about to find out what those are, since our friends at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) beat out Amazon and over 100 other applicants for one of 10 places in the U.S. national drone test program.

UAF’s Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration will take part in the U.S. government’s program to figure out how to fit drones into the national aviation system.

Some of their ideas could prove revolutionary for us and our circumpolar cousins, and potentially big business concepts for our entrepreneurs.

Start with emergencies. Drones could be dramatically cheaper than fixed wing or helicopter flights, and much safer in bad weather.

These are not just the tiny buzzing quadcopter drones you can buy at the mall for recreational purposes. They can be big, stable camera platforms. Or long-range mini-planes. On the other side of the world, for example, a San Francisco company called Zipline is using such devices to deliver medical supplies in remote areas of Africa. They have a range of 80 km, out of sight of the launcher, and can carry 1.8 kg at 100 km/h even at night in bad weather.

In 1925, dog teams had to carry medicine more than 1,000 km over the Iditarod trail during the Nome diphtheria outbreak. If UAF’s test of remote delivery of medicine and medical devices goes well, drones could be delivering vaccines, wilderness first aid kits or other lifesavers to remote locations.

Drones could also be first on-site to check out forest fires, floods, oil spills or avalanches.

Such machines could also eliminate a lot of expensive human field work in equally expensive aircraft. Think of drones counting moose or whales, or flying along power lines looking for teetering trees. UAF is also looking at avalanche-risk checks for the Alaska highways department. According to the Anchorage Daily News, the Alyeska pipeline will partner with UAF to run remote inspections in areas where the terrain makes it difficult for human pilots to see problems.

The UAF program is already doing an amazing range of things, from counting walruses and sea otters to Arctic tundra vegetation surveys to supporting wildfire teams.

They are also experimenting with remote bridge inspections, starting with the Placer River bridge on the Kenai Peninsula. Alaskan bridges carrying passenger vehicles need to be inspected every two years. Drones can take high-resolution scans which can be compiled into detailed three-dimensional virtual models back at the office. This can allow bridge managers to save money inspecting bridges that are clearly safe, and concentrate on the riskier bridges.

Not only do drones offer important safety, social and productivity benefits, but they also are an economic opportunity themselves. The UAF program has almost 20 employees, including several drone pilot positions.

That sounds like a fun job.

There are also jobs in operations, safety, remote sensing and business partnerships. Partner organizations from the pipeline company to the highways department will also need drone specialists in the future.

A company named K2 Dronotics is also involved. Founded by two Anchorage engineers, the company is certified by the Federal Aviation Authority for commercial operation. It already offers aerial inspections, detailed digital aerial surveying (“ortho-imagery” to the cognoscenti) and commercial photography.

Drones are operating in the Yukon too. One flew over our cabin at Tagish on the long weekend. Exploration and mining companies, commercial photographers and others are already putting drones to work. Transport Canada proposed new regulations for commercial and recreational drones which are supposed to be finalized later this year.

But we don’t have an official drone test program like Fairbanks, nor an organization such as UAF’s that has brought so many potential partners together. It will be up to Yukon drone entrepreneurs to figure out the evolving regulations and work with the various mining companies, government departments and other potential clients to drum up business.

But sometimes being a “fast follower” is a good strategy in business. Once the Alaskans have crashed a bunch of expensive drones figuring out what works in the North, Yukon drone pilots can copy Alaska’s best ideas and pitch concrete business cases to clients.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few Yukoners quietly taking notes at Alaska’s drone conference this September.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.

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