Even with the rapid growth of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) or drones, one of the FAA’s primary rules is that the pilot must maintain visual line of sight with the unmanned aircraft at all times. When waivers were granted for “extended line of sight” operations, visual observers on the ground were still required. Those operational constraints are about to change.

Collaborative projects between private industry and the Universities of Alaska-Fairbanks and Hawaii are transforming dreams into reality for the unmanned aircraft community. These technological accomplishments are laying the foundations to provide vital services to rural and outlying communities through long-distance search and rescue, surveying and telecommunications platforms mounted onboard solar powered drones.

Alaska Pipeline Inspections

In 2017, the Dept. of Transportation created the UAS Integration Pilot Program (UASIPP) to encourage collaboration amongst state, local, and tribal governments and the private sector in order to accelerate the safe integration of drones into the national airspace system. Each of the ten sites in the UASIPP has different mission that focus on specific industries and community concerns and technologies. The University of Alaska-Fairbanks is one of the ten UASIPP sites, and focuses on pipeline inspections and surveying in remote areas and harsh climates.  (The mission focus for each of the ten UASIPP sites can be found here.)

On July 31, 2019, the University of Alaska-Fairbanks (Fairbanks) conducted the first test flight of an unmanned aircraft Beyond Visual Line of Slight (BVLOS) without ground observers. The test flight’s mission was to inspect a four-mile segment of the Trans-Alaska pipeline.  The test flight utilized ground-based radar and onboard computer vision collision avoidance technology to meet its ‘Sense and Avoid’ obligations for safety of flight. The technology not only had to integrate data from the ground-based and onboard sensors to detect, track and classify objects that were in the air, the technology had to ensure the aircraft maintained the correct altitude above the pipeline as the ground elevation and terrain fluctuated over the four mile flight.

Solar Powered UAS Hawaii

In addition to its low-altitude pipeline inspection flight, Alaska-Fairbanks is collaborating with the University of Hawaii to perform UAS test flights in the stratosphere with HAPSMobile, the Japanese manufacturer of the HAWK30 solar powered UAS. HAPSMobile seeks to install a telecommunications system onboard High Altitude Platform Stations (HAPS) that will fly in the earth’s stratosphere (at approximately 65,000 feet) on solar powered drones that can remain in flight for several months at a time.

Alaska Fairbanks applied for a COA2 Certificate of Authorization from the FAA on behalf of the three parties, and last week received the authorization to fly the HAWK30 in the stratosphere above the Hawaiian island of Lanai. The testing will be done through the Pan-Pacific UAS Test Range Complex (PPUTRC), which is run by public university research institutions and managed by Alaska-Fairbanks. The Hawk30 test flights during 2019 will focus on safety verifications and coordinating with local authorities. According to HAPSMobile’s CEO, the company’s long-term goals from the test flights are to contribute to Linai’s agriculture and environmental conservation efforts while designing airborne infrastructure to improve mobile communication networks.

Follow-On Benefits from these Milestones

Alaska-Fairbanks sees other beneficial uses for BVLOS operations to serve people remote areas, such as delivering medical devices and monitoring roads and other infrastructure for damage or obstacles. One of the primary benefits of solar-powered UAS are exceptionally long dwell times, which enable them to serve as communications platforms in parts of the world that do not have traditional cellphone tower infrastructure, or when the existing infrastructure has been damaged during a natural disaster.

For more information, you can reach Husch Blackwell’s UAS team by contacting David Agee, Erik Dullea or Amanda Tummons to help your business more effectively utilize UAS technology and remain complaint with FAA.

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Photo of Erik Dullea Erik Dullea

Erik focuses on administrative/regulatory law, with an emphasis on heavily regulated industries and government contractors. He represents mine operators in MSHA enforcement actions, energy and industrial companies in OSHA enforcement actions, and advises airlines and their pilots challenging FAA and DOT enforcement actions.

Photo of David Agee David Agee

A significant portion of David’s practice involves working closely with clients in the role as general counsel, providing day-to-day advice and legal counsel. As a trusted advisor, he partners with clients to cost-effectively deliver comprehensive solutions to achieve their business objectives.

A significant portion of David’s practice includes clients in the commercial airline and business aviation industry. He has served as special counsel for domestic and international commercial airlines in connection with numerous aircraft acquisition, disposition and financing transactions, airport-related issues and transactions, sales and property taxation issues, and subsidiary dispositions and acquisitions, giving him a unique industry perspective.

Photo of Amanda Tummons Amanda Tummons

Amanda advises local, national and international clients, working with them to find practical solutions to business problems. She has substantial experience negotiating and managing contracts required for the ongoing business operations of the clients with whom she works. Amanda also counsels companies through mergers and acquisitions and in beginning new business ventures, including drafting complex shareholder agreements, buy-sell agreements and operating agreements.

As a member of Husch Blackwell’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) group, Amanda counsels clients on lawful commercial use of UAS and closely monitors the development of the framework for UAS. Her work with manufacturers and operators in the aviation industry that have implemented new technologies gives her insight into the challenges and opportunities that clients might face.

Photo of Chris Sundberg Chris Sundberg

Chris concentrates his practice in commercial contracting and providing guidance on regulatory matters. He has significant experience drafting, negotiating and managing contracts in order to minimize the risk and maximize the value of a company’s ongoing business operations. Chris devotes a significant portion of his practice to the representation of clients in the commercial airline and business aviation industries and provides guidance to operators of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS).