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Drone Flies from Fairbanks Airport

May 26, 2022 | News, Science, Transportation

The Sentry on the taxiway at Fairbanks International Airport.​

JR Ancheta | UAF Geophysical Institute

A remote-piloted aircraft operated by UAF took off from the Fairbanks airport (FAI)—the first large drone ever to fly from an international airport in Alaska.

Gently Into Traffic

The UAF Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration (ACUASI) is working to safely incorporate such aircraft into controlled airspace.

The Sentry aircraft took off from FAI’s general aviation runway and followed a designated flight pattern used for departures, arrivals, and runway approach practice. UAF personnel controlled the aircraft from a ground control station near the far end of the airport’s East Ramp.

The light-gray Sentry, with a wingspan of nearly 13 feet and weighing 280 pounds when empty, landed safely and came to its intended stop at a taxiway.

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“This historic flight for Alaska is the result of the dedication of the ACUASI team and our great partners at Fairbanks International Airport, the State of Alaska’s Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, and the Federal Aviation Administration,” says ACUASI Director Cathy Cahill. “This flight is an important first step in developing a drone economy in Alaska and improved freight and mail transport to rural Alaskans.”

Cahill adds that the test flight was made possible with support from the UA System, the Alaska Legislature, Governor Mike Dunleavy, and Alaska’s congressional delegation. She also said the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Beyond program was key to obtaining the permissions needed to fly this, and future, large drone missions for cargo delivery and other essential Alaska missions.

“Drones have such potential in environments like Alaska. They have huge economic potential for our businesses and industries,” Dunleavy says. “But perhaps more importantly they have the potential to help Alaskans when we need it the most, during disasters and emergencies such as surveilling a wildfire or dropping emergency supplies during a search and rescue.”

Integrating Airspace

Event participants gather around the Sentry aircraft after the successful flight at Fairbanks International Airport on May 22, 2022.

JR Ancheta | UAF Geophysical Institute

The Sentry was treated like any other aircraft, which is the idea behind integrating unmanned aircraft into the airspace.

The Sentry’s crew, who are rated aviators, communicated with the Fairbanks airport’s air traffic controllers in the same manner required of other general aviation pilots. The Sentry only moves at the airport as authorized by air traffic controllers.

The Sentry, like other aircraft operating in the controlled airspace, carries a transponder that allows air traffic controllers to know its location and altitude.

The flight on May 22 was the culmination of years of preparation and coordination with airport and FAA staff.

“Alaska is leading the way in drone research with a level of professionalism that our entire aviation community is known for,” says Ryan Anderson, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. “This is a professional pilot safely operating an aircraft in controlled airspace at an international airport.”

UAF, through ACUASI, is one of seven FAA-approved test sites in the nation and the only one in Alaska.

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