by Rhonda McBride
Channel 2 News
1:14 AM EDT, September 26, 2012
There are several unmanned aircraft sitting on a table at the Alaska Unmanned Aircraft System Interest Group’s annual meeting in Anchorage. They’re just a few pounds and look like something you’d find in a hobby shop.
But you should probably resist the temptation to pick one up and play with it. One of them costs a $100,000. Another one, the Aeryan Scout, has a $75,000 price tag.
Many Alaskans were introduced to the Scout this past winter, when a Russian tanker embarked on a historic journey to Nome to deliver fuel. The miniature airplane was sent to gather images of sea ice, to help chart a safe course for the Renda -- and the Coast Guard icebreaker that cleared its path.
At first, these drones were used primarily by the military. But Alaskans are finding more and more applications for this technology. Shell Oil has used these aircraft in a pilot project, to watch out for bowhead whales while exploring for oil in the Arctic. BP is looking to use them to improve its oil spill response capabilities.
Some at the conference wondered out loud about how unmanned aircraft might have been useful in preparing for recent floods in Southcentral Alaska. They say the drones, which can fly for hours at a time, might have helped identify places where flooding was imminent.
“I can’t imagine a better place than Alaska to test this,” says Greg Walker, one of the lead unmanned aircraft researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “I’m always looking for sort of a game change, something transformative.”
The drones are already changing the way scientists count sea lions in Alaskan waters.
“It may look like a toy,” says Walker, “but we’ve researched marine mammals in the Aleutian Islands, flying in 40 mile-an-hour winds off a ship.”
Tim Meintz, a former fisherman who now works for the North Pacific Fisheries Foundation, believes the drones are helping to fill in the gaps of knowledge about sea lions and their decline.
“It’ll get to the truth, whether the fishermen are the problem, or aren’t the problem,” says Meintz.
Tim Carroll, whose company Saltwater Inc., does research for the National Marine Fisheries Service, believes the aerial cameras can help researchers better understand the behavior of sea lions when they come in contact with fishing nets.
“We could move up and down the net and see the full length of that net with fairly good clarity,” says Carroll, who wants to know if contact with the net changes the mammal’s feeding behaviors.
Ro Bailey, who is in charge of special projects at the Poker Flat Research Range near Fairbanks, says images from an unmanned aircraft have caused scientists to rethink some of their theories on the disappearance of sea lions.
“We discovered we had a killer whale pod that was feeding on them. That’s a discovery that no one made before,” said Bailey.
Bailey would also like to see the drones used for search and rescue operations.
“Think about the opportunity to put an aircraft, a small aircraft up quickly and look for a heat signature,” said Bailey. “For one thing, your lost person is lost for a short period of time. And that’s important because you also have fewer searchers at risk.”
Still, there are skeptics who fear this technology will be abused to spy on people and invade their privacy. Another worry: the drones might interfere with the safety of conventional aircraft.
Many at the conference say they want to learn more about the Federal Aviation Administration’s plans to implement laws that will regulate the ownership and operation of unmanned aircraft – which will be able to be flown commercially.
Reed Greenwood, a US Army helicopter pilot, believes these miniature flying machines are the way of the future.
“From my standpoint as a soldier, it’s about saving soldiers’ lives,” says Greenwood. “It is very exciting. I think we’ll all come together and find a great solution.”
The conference will continue through Thursday at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Midtown.
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