🇺🇸 FAA waiver for UAF drone programme

By Yereth Rosen, Alaska Beacon - February 22, 2023
A 127kg unmanned aircraft is seen on the taxiway of the Fairbanks International Airport on 22 May last year. The aircraft is owned by the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Its flight, conducted by UAF’s Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration, was the first by a large drone from an international airport in Alaska. A new waiver granted by the Federal Aviation Administration is expected to streamline customers’ use of the UAF centre (📸: JR Ancheta / UAF Geophysical Institute)

By Yereth Rosen, Alaska Beacon

THE UNIVERSITY OF Alaska Fairbanks’ nationally recognised drone research programme reached what its staff said is a milestone, winning approval from federal aviation authorities to oversee other organisations’ unmanned aircraft flights. This makes it easier for customers to conduct tests with the university’s support.

The Federal Aviation Administration last week granted a special waiver that gives UAF’s Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration (ACUASI) responsibility for assessing airworthiness of customers’ aircraft and procedures, the university said in a statement. With the ACUASI in charge of that duty, companies and organizations testing their drones in designated airspace areas are able to do so in a more streamlined manner, the university said in its statement. Without the waiver, applicants had to apply individually to the FAA for airworthiness certificates and other permissions.

The waiver applies to drones under 136kg. Under its terms, the ACUASI will control all the operations covered, the university said in its statement.

“The FAA is allowing the test site to test and evaluate larger drones under real-world conditions,” Cathy Cahill, the ACUASI director, said in the statement. “This will allow us to support the development of a strong drone economy in Alaska and across the nation.”

The ACUASI has multiple established airspace ranges for testing — seven in Alaska and several others in the Lower 48, said Nick Atkins, the centre’s deputy director. Between all those sites, there have been about 1,200 flights so far this year, Mr Atkins said.

The centre was established in 2012 as a unit of UAF’s Geophysical Institute. It now leads the University of Alaska system’s unmanned aircraft programs.

Through it, UAF flies its own drones for various scientific purposes.

Last summer, for example, a 136kg UAF-owned drone called the SeaHunter was used to monitor North Atlantic right whales in Canadian waters, collecting information used to prevent ship collisions that are a major hazard to the highly endangered population.

Also last year, the programme achieved a milestone by flying a drone weighing 127kg with a wingspan of nearly 4m from Fairbanks International Airport. It was the first time a large drone had been flown from an international airport in Alaska.

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