FAA Grants Wide Authority to UAF Unmanned Aircraft Center
Event participants gather around the Sentry aircraft after a successful flight at Fairbanks International Airport on May 22, 2022.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) granted a regulatory waiver to UAF for its unmanned aircraft systems test site. The agency’s decision supports aircraft manufacturers and operators in proving the safety of drones so they can be certified for flight in the national airspace system.
The Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration (ACUASI), a unit of the UAF Geophysical Institute, manages and operates the test site. It received a letter detailing the four-year waiver from Caitlin Locke, acting executive director of the FAA’s Flight Standards Service.
“We were just handed a tool to help aircraft manufacturers get their drones certified for use,” says ACUASI Director Cathy Cahill.
Ordinarily, drone researchers must apply for a special airworthiness certificate and petition for exemption to various regulations. Both are time consuming and resource-intensive for the FAA and the applicant. Under terms of the waiver, ACUASI is responsible for assessing the airworthiness of a customer’s unmanned aircraft, provided the vehicle weighs less than 300 pounds. The center will also determine whether a customer’s aircraft can be operated safely.
“The FAA is allowing the test site to test and evaluate larger drones under real-world conditions,” Cahill says. “This will allow us to support the development of a strong drone economy in Alaska and across the nation.”
ACUASI has become a national leader in implementing the safe operation and integration of unmanned aircraft. UAF is one of seven FAA-designated unmanned aircraft systems test sites established to develop and test drone technology. It has numerous flight test areas around the country.
The FAA’s decision came just over two years after the state requested the waiver. US Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, Governor Mike Dunleavy, and the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities voiced support for the waiver so that industry could conduct research and development testing with minimal paperwork.
The waiver reads, “[T]he FAA finds that these operations are consistent with aviation safety because they occur in defined remote locations, which have been evaluated by the Air Traffic Organization to minimize exposure to people and property.” It notes that ACUASI has “fixed and mobile command centers with surveillance feeds and connections to airport rescue and firefighting services.”
“The FAA entrusted ACUASI with this waiver as a result of years of conducting safe public aircraft operations under similar regulatory conditions,” Cahill says. “This waiver now allows our civil customers to conduct testing and evaluation of aircraft beyond pure aeronautical research.”
Proven Track Record
The 280-pound Sentry drone on the taxiway at Fairbanks International Airport.
ACUASI achieved a historic milestone in May 2022 when one of its unmanned aircraft flew from Fairbanks International Airport in controlled airspace. The flight was the first civilian large drone operation from an international airport in Alaska.
ACUASI owns a variety of unmanned aircraft, as well as ground control stations, antennae, generators, and accessories. The center also owns unmanned aircraft system payloads, including detect-and-avoid systems (ground-based and airborne), anti-GPS jamming systems, electro-optical/infrared cameras, lidar systems, methane detectors, aerosol samplers, and more.
“We are grateful for our long-lasting partnership with the FAA that gave us another tool for use in our effort to safely integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace system,” Cahill says.