Alaska has been called America's last frontier -- but now the state's wild reaches are providing a key testing ground for researchers and native-owned companies exploring ways to use drones in their work.
Think scientists studying gray whales and sea lions, oil company engineers exploring offshore, or Coast Guard crews doing search-and-rescue or even oil spill drills, all using drones.
It's not that anything goes up there -- indeed, safety regulations have held back quicker deployment in Alaska's remote areas. But compared to the continental U.S., where busy skies and streets make safety a huge issue, Alaska has become a key research and development field for non-military drones. The feeling is that if drones can survive the deep freeze, thick fog and polar bears in Alaska, especially in the Arctic, they can make it anywhere.
Acknowledging that unique environment, the FAA last year designated the University of Alaska Fairbanks as one of six test sites nationwide for drones, or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), as it calls them.
Ro Bailey, a retired Air Force general who directs the Fairbanks site, described drones as ideal for jobs that are otherwise dirty, dangerous or dull. In many cases, "far better data can be collected using UAS, with far less risk to the humans involved," she said.
A case in point: Steller sea lions. Fog had routinely prevented manned aircraft from surveying that endangered species in Alaska's far western Aleutian Islands. But starting in 2012, the University of Alaska Fairbanks and then the National Marine Mammal Laboratory brought in small unmanned aircraft that could fly under the fog and that were also much quieter than manned craft -- a valued bonus since noise can cause stampedes that jeopardize sea lion pups.
"We were unable to collect that information in any other way," said Robyn Angliss, the lab's deputy director. The lab's 2014 survey, which used both manned and unmanned aircraft, "gave us the best coverage of the Western Steller sea lion population that we've had since the 1970s."
Angliss' lab is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which even has a department to evaluate new unmanned aircraft -- not just in Alaska, but also in locations like Hawaii, where they're used for monk seal surveys.
"We're still in the infancy of this," said NOAA UAS Project Manager Todd Jacobs. Since the UAS program ramped up in 2009, NOAA has used drones in just a handful of Alaska projects: two Alaska marine mammal surveys, work in Greenland, twice supporting Coast Guard oil spill exercises and a partnership with NASA to deploy a large GlobalHawk drone for weather and climate studies.
This coming summer should see a bit of a bump for that drone work: surveys of the Steller sea lion, gray whale and northern fur seal populations, and a third Coast Guard exercise.
Obstacles certainly exist. Technical bottlenecks include problems with ice buildup on drone wings and providing long-range communications in such a remote area. FAA safety regulations add to the costs of deployment: the research and commercial drones can only be flown by licensed pilots, while flights are only allowed during daylight and only as far as the eye can see.
The FAA earlier this month did announce proposed rules for small unmanned aircraft systems that could ease some of those restrictions. A final rule will be issued later this year after public comment.
If, for example, the final rule allows a scientist already in the field to fly a drone without having to bring a pilot along, that would be a huge savings. In that scenario, said Jacobs, "the costs to do this routinely will be much less than they are now."
"Much of those costs should go away," said Bailey, "but for now it is complicated and time consuming, which translates to costly."
Longer term, these drone pioneers are asking whether their work might be a precursor to delivery services for everything from spare parts to milk, which in remote areas of the Arctic can cost $10 a gallon.
While "delivering pizzas is beyond NOAA's purview," Jacobs joked, "I'm intrigued and interested" in drones as resupply vehicles for scientists.
The few Alaska-based companies that already provide drone services to scientists and energy companies could have a head start and sound primed to jump in once the FAA sets its rules and standards are adopted.
ASRC Federal, an Alaska company owned by 11,000 Inupiat natives, last year hired Bill Tart, previously a Pentagon-based expert on Predator drones, to run its UAS division. If the military can use drones to supply bases, he said, why not energy companies to get parts out to remote oil rigs.
Tart envisions a "hub-and-spoke system" where a single resupply ship services "multiple rigs operating unmanned air or unmanned surface vehicles 24 hours a day, depending on weather."
Steve Wackowski, operations manager at Tulugaq, another native-owned company that's so far flown two commercial drone surveys for oil companies, expects a day where drones resupply isolated villages with food and gear.
These vehicles offer "a huge potential to help life in rural Alaska through cheaper goods and high-tech jobs," said Wackowski, who is also a drone pilot and captain in the Air Force Reserve.
That potential is seen not only by those native-owned companies, but by townsfolk as well. In Wainwright, a town on Alaska's North Slope, village elder Rossman Peetook led a blessing ceremony last summer when Tulugaq tested a drone dubbed Nanook.
The backbone of this early commercial work is made up of men and women trained by the U.S. Air Force -- among them Bailey, Tart and Wackowski.
Tart likens this era, and Alaska's role, to the days after World War I, when "innovative, air-minded servicemen" made war technology commercial. "This same scenario a little less than 100 years ago sparked the airlines, the airmail, record-setting transportation feats, and other staples of our economy and society," he said.
One potential early commercial adopter is Amazon, which has advertised its intent to use drones as delivery vehicles. When asked if such services might one day reach Alaska's Arctic, a company spokeswoman didn't rule it out.
The company hopes to someday "deliver packages to customers around the world in 30 minutes or less," said Amazon's Kristen Kish. The work now, she said, is focused on testing vehicle designs and figuring out how "best to deliver packages in a variety of environments."
Bailey expects the first commercial deliveries to happen within two years. And while not naming names, she said "there are some very big-budget companies who are dead serious about making this happen."
"It won't be easy, the path won't be smooth, but it will happen," Bailey said, "and probably for scientists in remote areas much sooner than for most folks at their homes."