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Arctic Council Develops ‘Groundbreaking’ Research Drone Aircraft Safety Guidelines

UAF/Todd Paris

Experts from the United States and other Arctic nations have developed the first safety guidelines for operating unmanned drone aircraft in international airspace around the circumpolar north.

U.S. State Department official Julie Gourley told a crowd at the Carlson Center Monday that the use of unmanned aircraft systems has grown widespread in the circumpolar north in recent years. Because they serve as the perfect platform for surveying the vast expanse of the Arctic for such purposes as research and environmental monitoring.

“They allow for the ability to measure environmental conditions that currently pose a challenge for manned aircraft,” Gourley said, referring to such factors as bad weather and lack of airfield facilities. And the high cost of operating aircraft in the Arctic.

“All of these things can be overcome by unmanned aircraft systems,” she said.

Gourley says to carry out their missions, the unmanned aircraft – also known as unmanned aerial vehicles – often must fly across national borders or in international airspace. So developing guidelines for operating in the region is best done by an international organization – in this case, the eight-nation Arctic Council, the intergovernmental forum that studies circumpolar issues and advises national governments and other organizations on its findings.

“So all eight Arctic states came together to approve this set of guidelines,” she said.

Credit UAF Geophysical Institute
Unmanned aircraft systems like the Aeryon Skyranger are increasingly being used for research purposes in the Arctic such as monitoring oil spills and other contaminants.

Gourley says the unmanned aerial systems, or UAS, guidelines are among the most important accomplishments of the two-year U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council.

“It’s completely groundbreaking,” she said. “It exists nowhere else on the planet. This is the first time that UAS guidelines for safety of operations for scientific research have ever been done.”

Gourley is the U.S. representative to the Senior Arctic Officials, a group that carries out the day-to-day work of the Arctic Council. She was in town to talk about the council during one of many events being held around town in conjunction with the University of Alaska-Fairbanks’ Arctic Science Summit Week.

She said in an interview later an Arctic Council working group developed the guidelines because academia, industry and governments all are increasingly using unmanned aircraft systems in the far north.

“This is a new technology that we want to deploy in the Arctic. And we needed to have some kind of way of ensuring that using this technology wouldn’t interfere with civil aviation.”

Gourley says the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration led the effort to develop the guidelines, with help from the International Civil Aviation Organization.

Editor's note: This story has been revised for posting online.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.