With a total population of only 736,081, Alaska is the least populous state in the United States. Covering 665,384.04 square miles, Alaska is also the largest state. Responsible for the safety and protection of the people of Alaska is the Alaska State Troopers (AST). A full service law enforcement agency the AST only has about 1,300 sworn full time officers. To properly serve Alaska, the AST relies on a range of heavy duty ground, water, and aerial vehicles.
These vehicles come in very handy when the AST has to oversee a search and rescue mission. Alaska is known for incredible outdoor activities like hiking, paddling, and wildlife watching. Unfortunately, these activities often lead to the need for search and rescue missions. With off road vehicles and air support, the AST has become a model of how search and rescue operations should be conducted. According to AST’s website, “Troopers conduct over four hundred and fifty SAR operations each year.” Sometimes, however, manned ground and aerial support vehicles are not enough to get the job done. And in Alaska, where the weather can impose extreme risks, search and rescue missions need to be conducted as quickly and efficiently as possible.
For this reason, the AST has begun turning to drones to assist officers in search and rescue missions. Using drones, AST officers have the agility needed to locate missing persons without having to risk their own lives. A drone can access places that ground or manned aircraft simply can’t. It could be on a mountain or cliffside, under dense forest foliage, or hidden among ice floes. But, with limited personnel and drone equipment, not all AST officers have access to drone technology at all times.
When the AST needs to deploy a drone but doesn’t have access to one, from time to time they will call on the help of the University of Alaska Fairbank’s Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration (ACUASI) program. The ACUASI program first began in 2001, when drones were still primarily being used only by the military. The research conducted there made ACUASI an ideal location for one of the Federal Aviation Administration’s official drone testing sites. As stated on ACUASI’s website, its mission is to “Develop, test, and ultimately exploit emerging unmanned aircraft technology and its uses to create a positive economic and social benefit within the State of Alaska.” The center runs experiments throughout the state on a wide range of drones. These tests involve how drones operate under extreme weather, different payload capabilities, BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line Of Sight) operations, and a bevy of scientific experiments.
“Our primary objective is to safely integrate unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace. Translation: get unmanned aircraft in to do missions that right now are risks to human pilots,” said Cathy Cahill, the director of ACUASI. She went on to explain that while they are primarily focused on research, ACUASI is always available to help Alaska. “We are a State of Alaska asset really,” she said. “so if there is a way we can help them out, we want to. We don’t get many calls, but when we do, if it’s life and limb, or wellness check or something for protecting people in the community, ACUASI will go.” By collaborating and using drones, the AST and ACUASI are ensuring that Alaska has the resources needed to protect, serve, and improve technology.