The RTK drone flies on Tuesday near Snowslide Creek in Juneau. The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities uses drones to evaluate snowpack and prepare for avalanches by increasing the collection of data. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

The RTK drone flies on Tuesday near Snowslide Creek in Juneau. The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities uses drones to evaluate snowpack and prepare for avalanches by increasing the collection of data. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

Alaska leads the nation in drone innovation, wants to use it to save more lives

Visibility, data collection for disaster management reaching new heights, experts visiting Juneau say.

This story has been updated to correct photo captions referring to the drone manufacturer DJI.

When an avalanche closed Thane Road in January, residents wondered when they’d be able to leave their homes again. Alaska is at the forefront of using drone technology to better forecast and study disasters such as avalanches, according to Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) experts.

The research goal is to improve the speed and quality of information shared with the public.

About 40 UAS experts attended an interactive peer exchange in Juneau on Tuesday and Wednesday to witness the breakthrough technology used to monitor Alaska avalanches. Most of the event, hosted by the Alaska Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration, took place at the Alaska State Office Building.

DOT also presented a mission-based drone demo at its Thane Road dock installation near Snowslide Creek, where avalanches can often reach the road.

UAS is used in all 50 states. Each state varies in resources when it comes to the number of people, the funding and the amount of equipment available.

Saving time and lives

With labor shortages, DOT can have the same level of service by using drone in a box. The technology can allow remote sensing to occur in emergency situations.

It’s not a cardboard box: it’s a weather environment that opens, releasing a drone. The system captures data repeatedly, allowing DOT to detect changes in snowpacks and landscapes.

The RTK drone can put itself away into its “box” after mission completion. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

The RTK drone can put itself away into its “box” after mission completion. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

The Alaska Center for Unmanned Systems Integration Alaska (ACUASI) UAS test site is operated by the University of Alaska Fairbank’s Geophysical Institute. It’s unique in that it’s a Federal Aviation Administration test site, an FAA Center of Excellence and one of the eight “beyond” partners for the FAA — all under one roof. FAA 14 CFR Part 107 requires drones to be flown in a line-of-sight, but being a test site and more in one location allowed leeway for development, according to John Robinson, director of operations for ACUASI at UAF.

ACUASI has partnered with DOT since its 2001 inception. Ryan Marlow is the UAS/Drone Program Coordinator for DOT. He oversees drone research and development for Alaska, working hands-on with remote sensing and drone technology.

“We started testing drone in a box with the avalanche program about two years ago,” he said. “We’ve been some of the first adopters in the nation of having the authority to fly them beyond visual line-of-sight. Because we are a governmental agency we can go after public aircraft operations, which gives us the ability to operate for emergencies like Wrangell, or avalanche conditions where there’s hazard to the public.”

Marlow said he hopes the drone in a box technology will be available for most of the UAS industry within the next couple of years. Robinson said the first thing he thinks of when it comes to the technology’s impacts is “saving lives.”

The DJI from dock one flies as part of an Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities drone demo on Tuesday. It’s used for mapping missions. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

The DJI from dock one flies as part of an Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities drone demo on Tuesday. It’s used for mapping missions. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

Alaska leads the way despite challenging conditions

Due to Alaska’s sheer scale and extreme weather, the state faces unique challenges when it comes to drone technology, such as working around Global Positioning System constellation barriers and heavy rain.

Research and development fund drone in a box. DOT data continues to test the potential risks of drones in “every possible condition” to examine their reliability and safety, Marlow said.

Marlow said drones are now “weatherproof” and can withstand rain and snow, although extreme weather may impact the quality of data. Wind remains a challenge.

Marlow said DOT is advocating deployment out to tribal communities so they can utilize the technology for remote sensing, asset infrastructure, documenting erosion and changing climates. The technology can also be used across Alaska for road services and wildlife assessment.

“When you look at how big of an area we have to cover, the rest of the states are complaining, like ‘Hey, we can’t do this,’” he said. “And it’s like, look, we are covering the same amount of area with one-hundredth the staff. That’s where autonomy and augmentation come in. I mean, we’re not replacing jobs, we’re not taking away anything — we’re augmenting the current workforce and getting them out of those situations that are just unsafe.”

The drone in a box technology was deployed in Wrangell during the November 2023 landslide to monitor and look for movement remotely. Scientists have warned landslides in Southeast Alaska are becoming more common and Marlow said drones could help better survey conditions.

“We did a lot of outreach with the community and the STEM programs to explain what this technology was, how we’re evaluating it,” Marlow said. “But I believe, today, we’ve had over 70 remote deployments where we’re operating it from Juneau or Anchorage and going and flying the data with the drone in a box.”

He added the workshops held by DOT and FHWA are “the catalyst that makes all of this possible.”

Ryan Marlow, Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities drone program coordinator, demonstrates how he can remotely control a drone while remaining aware of its surroundings. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

Ryan Marlow, Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities drone program coordinator, demonstrates how he can remotely control a drone while remaining aware of its surroundings. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

Pat Dryer is the avalanche and geohazards specialist for the Southcoast Region of DOT. He said they are using the drone in a box to implement routine monitoring of Juneau’s avalanche paths.

“Once we have large snowfall events, wind events, or we do avalanche hazard reduction like we’ve traditionally done along Thane Road, we’re looking at how we can utilize this technology to gather more information to make informed decisions,” he said. “So how are the conditions changing on the mountainside? And how can we monitor those remotely?”

DOT operates in an environment with other commercial aviation which requires coordination with the FAA.

“We’re not hindering commercial aviation, we’re working together on that,” Dryer said. “That’s been a major challenge. Here in Juneau, the avalanche program has changed through the years, and we’re trying to look at the technology of how we can use this to better make informed decisions and try to manage the hazard in the best way possible. So we can limit road closures — we can limit any inconveniences to the traveling public.”

A photo taken on Feb. 25, 2013, visualizes Thane Road Urban Avalanche Paths. (Compiled by Mike Janes, Alaska Electric Light and Power)

A photo taken on Feb. 25, 2013, visualizes Thane Road Urban Avalanche Paths. (Compiled by Mike Janes, Alaska Electric Light and Power)

Dryer said it’s not possible to reduce avalanche hazards in Juneau without weather conducive for helicopters. But the drone in a box can help pinpoint the most opportune times to bring down the snow.

On Tuesday, the drone in a box demo illustrated how the technology uses photogrammetry.

“Essentially we’re taking a lot of photos, stitching them together and using computer algorithms to generate either three-dimensional models of the snowpack if it’s avalanches or the landscape if it’s landslides,” Dryer said.

FirstNet is a nationwide wireless communications network designed for first responders. It’s a public-private partnership between the federal government and AT&T, offering exclusive access to features and applications tailored for emergency responders. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

FirstNet is a nationwide wireless communications network designed for first responders. It’s a public-private partnership between the federal government and AT&T, offering exclusive access to features and applications tailored for emergency responders. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

Repeatability is one of the main advantages of the drone in a box when launched remotely because it allows for better-quality data. Dryer said staff uses Starlink or cellphones for internet connection to fly the aircraft, gather information, and deliver data to specialists to make decisions about hazards to the roadway. DOT uses an electric truck to transport drones and power them.

Outside of avalanche and landslide monitoring, DOT hopes its drone in a box can assist in mapping and studying Suicide Basin to increase situational awareness around glacial outburst flooding.

DOT holds internships in conjunction with the University of Alaska Southeast’s drone mapping program, which continues to be developed. On Aug. 5, 2023, the basin released more than 13 billion gallons of water in a glacial outburst flood, causing record flooding of the Mendenhall River. While additional monitoring equipment has been installed since, further data from drones could be useful in planning for future responses.

Pat Dryer, avalanche and geohazards specialist for the Southcoast Region of Department of Transportation, opens DJI dock one, the home of a mapping drone. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

Pat Dryer, avalanche and geohazards specialist for the Southcoast Region of Department of Transportation, opens DJI dock one, the home of a mapping drone. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

Drones in the world of aviation

In addition to the drone in a box, ACUASI is currently researching the complete integration of UAS into the airspace.

“Aviation is a big part of the Alaskan lifestyle,” John Robinson, director of operations for ACUASI at UAF, said. “And we’re trying to basically increase the safety case. So there are a lot of really dangerous things that you do with a pilot now in Alaska, that could be augmented with a large drone.”

One of the larger drones flown through 25 rural Alaska communities was a full Cessna Grand Caravan.

“It went out and landed on gravel runways,” he said. “It talked to air traffic control; it avoided weather. The pilot said it was the most boring flight of his life because he didn’t have to do anything, so we’re working on those technologies to basically improve quality of life and bring that economic benefit to the state of Alaska.”

Robinson said ACUASI and DOT are a part of Alaska’s aviation community.

“It’s really important that we take care of them, they take care of us,” he said. “And we all push the envelope forward so that Alaska is leading in this drone technology, and then also leading in these autonomous cargo systems. AAM, or Advanced Air Mobility, we want to be number one, and we want to get there and bring that up to Alaska.”

Robinson said the other side of ACUASI’s autonomous cargo work is integrating drones in the airspace. He said the goal is for drones to carry cargo in rural Alaska, but it’s a long, regulatory process. They’re working with the FAA and Alaska DOT to explore this option and legislation to support their goal.

“Even if it’s a small amount of cargo, it’s a quality-of-life improvement,” he said. “Not only are you improving access to goods, milk, diapers, fresh fruits, vegetables, but medicine is a really big one — which that in and of itself can save lives or improve quality of life. But then on the other side of it, too, once you get these drones in the airspace, you have the ability to do really, really powerful disaster response, search and rescue, fire mitigation. The list goes on and on, so there’s a lot to be excited about.”

This drone is smaller than DJI dock one and is brand new. It started running this month and is used for bridge work. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

This drone is smaller than DJI dock one and is brand new. It started running this month and is used for bridge work. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

Paul Wheeler, vice president of aerial innovation at WSP USA Inc., visited Juneau from Salt Lake City for the peer exchange. He said he’s excited for the future of Unmanned Aerial Systems. The first states that explored UAS were Utah, Ohio, North Carolina, California, Massachusetts and Minnesota. More than seven out of 10 state departments of transportation have hired hundreds of staff, including highly skilled personnel and pilots to manage drone operations, according to a 2019 survey conducted by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

Data shows the increased use of Unmanned Aerial Systems by the U.S. State Department of Transportations in a May 2019 survey. (Slide from American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials)

Data shows the increased use of Unmanned Aerial Systems by the U.S. State Department of Transportations in a May 2019 survey. (Slide from American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials)

“In 2011 we were trying to build aircraft ourselves and piecing together sensors, and make them work,” he said. “Now it’s matured. We actually have a lot of vendors that are creating these right off the shelf, out of the boxes. The cameras, the sensors, the capabilities for the autopilots and just being able to fly easily, so almost anybody can fly. That’s a huge change, too, because before you’d have to be trained, you’d have to worry about even landing and taking off or crashing.”

Wheeler said he hopes drones can be used as a tool to retain workers and inspire younger generations to adventure into aviation. He encouraged youth to explore becoming a drone pilot. As of May 31, 392,468 remote pilots have been certified nationally, according to the FAA.

He added he hopes Alaska’s drone in a box technology can eventually be used in Utah for avalanche responses.

Wheeler recalls a scenario where drones helped lessen risks to first responders’ safety while he led the Utah DOT UAS program. The highway patrol responded to a car accident and it was unknown how many occupants were in the vehicles.

“The driver was ejected, and they didn’t know if somebody else was in the field,” he said. “And this is a field full of spiders, so you look out the field and you see all these spider webs, just thousands of them. So they’re able to take a drone and fly it and look with thermal and found that there wasn’t anybody there, so nobody had to go walking through it. But if there was, they could have found them quickly, go exactly to where they need to be, instead of trying to search the whole area.”

• Contact Jasz Garrett at jasz.garrett@juneauempire.com or (907) 723-9356.

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