The ARROW Program: Drones Add New Tool to State Emergency Response Quiver
The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOT&PF) has launched the Alaska Rural Remote Operations Work Plan (ARROW) program to improve its emergency responses by incorporating uncrewed aerial systems (UAS), often known as drones.
Proof of Concept
The ARROW program parallels the commitment of the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) to rural and disadvantaged communities and removes barriers that have complicated past engagement. In May 2023, the competitive Strengthening Mobility and Revolutionizing Transportation (SMART) grant, administered by USDOT, provided DOT&PF with $1.9 million to make the ARROW Program possible.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) governs UAS operations and equipment, which, in DOT&PF’s case, is manufactured by Skydio, the largest American-made and owned UAS company.
According to the work plan, DOT&PF and its partners—including the FAA’s BEYOND Program, the UAF Alaska Center for UAS Integration, and Skydio—will complete five tasks by November of next year to produce a proof-of-concept report, which could secure up to $15 million. This alliance will train Alaskans to operate UAS and capture beyond visual line of sight images for the DOT&PF. Several communities are being equipped with high-speed, low Earth orbit satellite terminals to process data and manage it through a geographic information system, allowing information to be easily reviewed after emergencies.
Since receiving the SMART Grant, DOT&PF has established five criteria to select communities to participate in the ARROW program. Those criteria include having existing critical infrastructure, strong community leadership and engagement, historically disadvantaged economies, public safety and Village Public Safety Officers’ presences, and equipment storage and educational facilities. Using those criteria, DOT&PF selected eleven communities for the ARROW program: Anchorage, Bethel, Cordova, Dillingham, the Denali Borough, Fairbanks, Juneau, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Nome, the Northwest Arctic Borough, and Valdez.
Dylan Blankenship, aviation development specialist at DOT&PF, acknowledges that not all locations are rural communities. The reason is that the FAA’s Small UAS Rule, Part 107, mandates that Remote Pilot Certificate exams be administered by FAA-certified test distributors at approved testing sites. “We are trying to overcome the cost-prohibitive obstacle rural community members face when obtaining certificates,” he says. Although components of the UAS trainings can be self-taught and completed virtually, traveling to approved testing sites for the exams can cost upwards of $700 per individual.
To overcome these barriers, the next task in the SMART grant is to focus on trainings and certifications, starting in September. DOT&PF is planning for participants to first go through Skydio Academy, where they learn the drones’ navigational components, media syncing steps, and cloud streaming features. Then DOT&PF hopes to host Remote Pilot Certificate exams in the eleven selected communities by working with the FAA and the University of Alaska.
“Mobile testing sites would be a good alternative to long-distance travel,” Blankenship says. If approved, DOT&PF could onboard more people from rural communities into the ARROW program without incurring unnecessary expenses.
Matt Westhoff, a pilot with the UAF Alaska Center for UAS Integration, guides the SeaHunter aircraft to the runway at Nenana Municipal Airport for another test flight in May 2022.
Ryan Marlow, UAS program coordinator at DOT&PF, notes that the department is creating UAS workflows that will change how communities document and share data when responding to emergencies and infrastructure failure.
“If our proof-of-concept is successful and we are awarded additional funds, we can deploy more UAS in more Alaska communities,” says Marlow. “To get there, not only do we need the correct metrics, we must build trust and involvement with the communities so they become confident in applying the drones in their daily tasks. If we accomplish that, Alaska will take an incredible leap forward.”
The SMART grant operates with flexibility, allowing DOT&PF to adjust its goals based on discovered obstacles, insights, and needs. Communities can be accommodated, and data governance and security can be prioritized.
“The funds we’ve received help us determine where to go next,” says Blankenship. “Take the question of maintaining the drones, moving forward. Who should be responsible? The DOT&PF already has UAS infrastructure and management know-how, so we could do it. But, since our goal is to empower rural communities to take active roles in their emergency responses and infrastructure inspection, perhaps, empowering them to maintain and upgrade their fleet would be best.”