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Experiments test drone freight delivery to Alaska villages

A Cessna Grand Caravan will be equipped with software for autonomous flying to several Alaska Villages in May.
Courtesy Merlin Labs
A Cessna Grand Caravan will be equipped with software for autonomous flying to several Alaska Villages in May.

The UAF drone program is getting ready to test a pilotless plane for freight deliveries to villages. It is the very first step in a testing regimen that may expand the supply chain in Alaska.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks has one of the top drone research programs in the country.

Officially called the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft System Integration, or ACUASI for short, the program has been connected to scientific research since it began 22 years ago. Dr. Catherine F. Cahill, the Director of ACUASI, says UAF drones have looked for whales in the St. Lawrence Seaway, flown over wildfires to look at fire behavior, monitored oil pipelines, measured glaciers and their motion. She says there's demand for unmanned aircraft on the scientific front; but there is also another sector of use to benefit Alaskans.

“The key thing here is a lot of what we are looking at doing is stuff that is really not that safe to do using traditional aircraft. So if you're in a remote community, the only way you get goods is they're flown in. Well, that can be really risky for the pilot. So if we can get, you know, milk and diapers out the villages on a more regular basis, we actually are changing people's lives and helping them live in the place they want to be,” Cahill said.

Cahill made a presentation recently to the Fairbanks Economic Development Corporation on how ACUASI is working to integrate planes without pilots into the national airspace.

” And of course, as we said, cargo delivery is what we think is gonna be bread and butter for ACUASI for a while here, because we have a need,” Cahill said.

Working toward that is a big project partnering with Everts Air Cargo and Merlin corporation, to see if a Cessna Grand Caravan can fly without a pilot -- eventually.

“Merlin Labs is exciting because they keep coming up. They are bringing their Cessna Grand Caravan to operate at Fairbanks International Airport starting in May. They're starting with Fairbanks to Nenana, but they're also going Fairbanks to Galena, to Deadhorse, to Utkiagvik, to Fort Yukon.”

The plane will be outfitted with a software package that can fly the aircraft, and adjust to varying conditions, and tell when other aircraft are nearby.

Jimmy Parrish, ACUASI’s Business Director says there will be a human on board.

“There’s a safety pilot sitting behind in the cockpit so he can flip a switch and take over if he wants to, but for the most part, it is going to be flying, uh, autonomously,” Parrish said.

Cahill says she wants pilots to be reassured.

“It is autonomous, and it is being flown with a safety pilot on board. So if you happen to be a general aviation pilot, don't worry. We're not turning it loose without lots and lots and lots of tests and evaluation,” she said.

Cahill says the aircraft will be available for public viewing at Fairbanks Aviation Day in late May.

Another big project is a new hangar for the aircraft at the Nenana airport. ACUASI has been using the Nenana airport regularly for test flights and it is becoming a part of the Interior drone testing hub. Right now, the airport does not have any available hangars. The university will lease land from the city to build a new one.

“ We have just signed a 50 year lease with the airport. We have designed a hangar. We have put in the purchase order for the steel. It's been approved by the Board of Regents, and it's going out to bid,” Cahill said.

Construction on the new hangar is expected to begin in June and be complete in early fall. It has to be big enough to shelter ACUASI’s largest aircraft: the Sentry with a wingspan of nearly 13 feet. It weighs 325 pounds loaded and can fly for six hours. And the SeaHunter with a 16-foot wingspan, weighing nearly 300 pounds when loaded and can fly for 10 hours.

“ We'll be flying our SeaHunter off of Fairbanks International Airport to Nenana a lot this summer. She's the 16-foot wingspan twin engine in front. Unlike the Cessna where you can have a safety pilot on board, SeaHunter does not have space for a safety pilot, so we will be flying with a chase plane,” Cahill said.

Cahill says ACUASI’s job is education, and facilitating development of a drone economy in Alaska, that gets transferred to Alaska’s communities.

Robyne began her career in public media news at KUAC, coiling cables in the TV studio and loading reel-to-reel tape machines for the radio station.