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The Drones Are Coming: Task Force Issues Report on Unmanned Aircraft Systems in Alaska

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Photo by Doctor Popular, Creative Commons Licensing.
Photo by Doctor Popular, Creative Commons Licensing.

The Alaska House Majority announced the completion of a task force report on unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) on June 30.

UAS are more commonly known as drones, though that lay term encapsulates numerous classifications of unmanned aerial vehicles.

The Legislative Task Force on Unmanned Aircraft Systems (LTFUAS) was established in 2013 by House Concurrent Resolution (HCR) 6, which passed both houses unanimously. The resolution charged the task force with examining FAA regulations on drones and making recommendations for future drone legislation in Alaska.

final report to the legislatureThe task force is co-chaired by Rep. Shelley Hughes (R-Palmer) and Sen. Donny Olson (D-Golovin). Initially, the two legislators were joined by a member each from the Department of Public Safety, the Department of Military and Veterans’ Affairs, the Alaska Center for UAS Integration at University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), the Academy of Model Aeronautics, and the Alaska Aviation Advisory Board. The task force was then expanded and its term extended by HCR 15 in 2014, also unanimously passed.

According to the full report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said the U.S. must address the domestic operation of drones beginning in 2008. Alaska is one of 43 states with existing or pending legislation regulating drones.

Privacy was one of the primary concerns brought to the task force. While the commercial use of drones is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), privacy interests will be the responsibility of state and local governments. The report did note that the Fourth Amendment has been used to protect citizens from aerial observation, examples of which can be found in the cited report by John Villasenor, a UCLA professor and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

The task force concluded that existing state law was sufficient to protect Alaskans’ privacy. The report cited the Alaska Constitution, which reads in part, “The right of the people to privacy is recognized and shall not be infringed. The Legislature shall implement this section.” Alaska statutes dealing with privacy include laws against “monitoring by technical means” and “indecent viewing or photography.”

However, upon recommendations from the LTFUAS, the legislature supplemented these statutes by passing House Bill 255 this year with only Rep. Les Gara (D-Anchorage) voting in opposition. The bill defines the limits of law enforcement use of drones and establishes a drone training program at UAF. Among the law enforcement provisions are that all flights must be for a public purpose, detailed and auditable flights records must be kept, and, in most cases, a search warrant must be obtained before drones may collect evidence.

The report said that law enforcement does not currently plan on using drones for standard patrols.

Members of the task force were keen to stress that Alaska is “open for business” and suggested more regulation would discourage drone industry growth. From the report:

The LTFUAS considered two approaches to regulating the use of UAS in Alaska:

1. restrict the industry and adopt exemptions for specific kinds of approved uses, or

2. generally allow UAS operations in Alaska and adopt the necessary privacy, operations, and other guidelines that seem necessary to protect Alaskans.

The LTFUAS adopted the second approach and emphasized that educating the public will be an important part of integrating this technology safely and for the benefit of Alaskans.

And again:

The LTFUAS approach is to responsibly embrace the positive uses of UAS without overregulating the industry and thus hindering economic opportunity. In addition to accepting the use of UAS in Alaska, the LTFUAS recognizes that public perception is greatly influenced through media reports, such as military flights in war zones. The public has been hesitant to allow UAS in Alaska due to fear of invasion of personal privacy and overreaching law enforcement. Recent media reports have decreased public anxiety and increased public awareness of potential benefits of UAS, such as the publicity surrounding Amazon’s consideration of “drone deliveries” in the future, YouTube videos showing beer delivered by a UAS to ice fishermen, and news reports of drones being used to identify hot spots in forest fires.

The task force may be painting a rosy picture with regard to public perception of drones. A June 25 NBC Nightly News story documented the growing ubiquity of drones and the serious concerns citizens have about them. The story included YouTube footage of hockey fans knocking a drone out of the sky.

Small drones used for recreation, like some of those in the NBC story, are governed jointly by the FAA and the self-regulated

Photo credit: NASA/Goddard/Chris Perry, Creative Commons Licensing.
Poker Flat Research Range. Photo credit: NASA/Goddard/Chris Perry, Creative Commons Licensing.

Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA). The AMA safety codes are attached to the LTFUAS report as an appendix.

Commercial drone flight is exclusively regulated by the FAA. Currently, the FAA requires line-of-sight operation of drones, though the task force acknowledged that non-line-of-sight operations may be allowed as drone technology advances. Perhaps ironically in an era when state government often laments Federal overreach, the task force repeatedly expressed confidence in the FAA’s policies and ability to enforce the safe operation of drones.

Much of the impetus behind the legislature’s movement on drones came from UAF. The university has been doing drone testing and research since 2004. In December, the FAA selected Alaska as one of six states to test safe operation of drones.

UAF submitted a joint application with Oregon and Hawaii to join the FAA test. As part of that application, “the McDowell Group was contracted to complete an economic evaluation of unmanned aircraft benefits for Alaska,” according to the LTFUAS report. McDowell’s “Economic Impact of a Pan-Pacific Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site” was completed in May 2013, and is attached to the task force report as an appendix.

According to McDowell, Alaska plans to invest $1.5 million in a center at Poker Flat Research Range tied to the FAA test. By 2017, drone testing in the multi-state partnership will generate 173 direct jobs in Alaska and $9.4 million in direct income, the majority of which comes from designation as an FAA test site.

Two companies formed by UA graduate students will be testing their drone products at the Pan-Pacific range.

In addition to the immediate economic benefits trumpeted by the LTFUAS, its report listed practical applications of drones that have benefitted or could benefit the state. A drone has been used to minimize the impact of marine mammal studies on the animals, thereby generating a more accurate population count. Drones have also been used to examine the functionality of oil field smoke stacks.

The report suggested that drones could have a significant role in public safety. By keeping pilots on the ground, drones could operate in dangerous environments, increasing the probability of saving lives while protecting those of the pilots. Since drones can launch from almost anywhere, response time would be reduced. Also, drone operation costs significantly less than manned law enforcement flights.

Despite the task force’s enthusiasm for the possibilities of drone use in Alaska, the cost-benefit analysis has not been completed in the public domain. The National Park Service announced a temporary ban on drone use except for administrative purposes in all national parks while the Service collects more information on drone impact. In Alaska, that means drone use is already restricted in about 12 percent of the state.