Developing Drones: The Aeronautics Industry Is Taking Off on St. Paul
“Flying cars could rewrite how the Air Force and civil society do logistics and transportation,” says Dr. Will Roper, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology & Logistics. It’s an interesting position to take, as many feel one of the most egregious unfulfilled predictions of the ‘50s and ‘60s is that the near future (what we happily call “now”) would feature skies cluttered with flying cars.
And while we are accustomed to the sight of helicopters and drones, they don’t quite fit the vision of flying to the grocery store or jetting to the park.
Agility Prime, a US Air Force program, is just the thing that will “help usher the ‘not yet’ into the ‘now,’” Roper says.
Agility Prime is a non-traditional program created to accelerate the commercial market for advanced mobility vehicles, which it collectively refers to as orbs. “These vehicles are not drones, helicopters, airplanes, cars, trucks, motorcycles, SUVs—and some would adamantly say they are not flying cars. However, they might support similar missions.”
Agility Prime envisions these orbs will have “particular utility” in medical evacuations, firefighting operations, civil and military disaster relief, search and rescue missions, and humanitarian relief operations. The program was launched in May 2020 during Agility Prime week, a virtual gathering that included diverse speakers, breakout sessions, and networking.
Interest in expanding the role of aeronautic systems crosses industry and national borders. According to BIS Research in its Global Fixed-Wing VTOL Aircraft Market—Analysis and Forecast from 2018 to 2028 report, “The global fixed-wing VTOL [vertical takeoff and landing] aircraft market is expected to witness significant growth over the forecast period 2018-2028 due to the rising demand across various end-users including commercial, military, and law enforcement… the global fixed-wing VTOL aircraft market generated $2,009.6 million in 2017 and is estimated to grow at a CAGR [compound annual growth rate] of 21.7 percent during 2018-2028.”
What’s super exciting about the aeronautics industry is that it’s being developed, in part, right here in the Last Frontier. It only makes sense: nothing is more Alaskan than the need for affordable, small-scale transportation to remote areas that are difficult to access.
Alaska has been a proving ground for aeronautics for some time. While drone technology may have been born elsewhere, in Alaska its capabilities have been put to the test.
For example, in 2018 and 2019, NOAA Fisheries took advantage of industry partners with unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and imaging technology expertise to re-conceive how to collect information that is essential for managing Alaska’s northern fur seal population, which had shown a “dramatic, unexplained” decline. According to the organization, “In 2016 pup production was the lowest recorded in 100 years.”
Before utilizing UAS technology, NOAA Fisheries conducted surveys of northern fur seal pups by stationing fifteen to twenty-two people on the Pribilof Islands for up to three weeks; they would walk through the pup rookeries and clear out adult fur seals to allow for the safe handling and temporary marking of the seal pups.
By looking at UAS technology, the organization hoped to reduce costs, the number of people on site, and the disturbance to the seals, taking an example from surveys of endangered Steller sea lions, which have utilized drone technology since 2014.
However, counting fur seal pups from the air is a different task than Steller sea lions. “While Steller sea lions are fairly easy to count from photographic images because of their size and color, northern fur seals—especially pups—are hard to see since they blend in so well with the background,” said Katie Sweeney, the marine mammal scientist that led the study for the Alaska Fisheries Science Center’s Marine Mammal Laboratory.
Data from cameras mounted to unmanned aerial vehicles has changed the way organizations such as the US Fish and Wildlife Service gather information essential for managing and protecting vulnerable wildlife populations.
Instead of just traditional photography, the team also utilized thermal imaging, conducing aerial surveys with a thermal sensor and a high-resolution digital camera mounted to a hexacopter.
As another example, Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. has been using drones (aerial and underwater) to survey TAPS for years, and was an integral part of UAS development. In 2019, a team of researchers from UAF flew a quadcopter over a three-mile section of the pipeline north of Fairbanks—this was the first FAA-approved beyond-line-of-sight drone flight in the United States. When out of sight, the drone relied on its own sensors for navigation.
It’s undeniable that drone technology is evolving, and the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 reflected the changing needs of commercial users and UAS enthusiasts. One section of the Act, Section 44803, made it possible for UAS test ranges to get funding from sources other than the FAA and extended the authorization of test sites for an additional length of time.
Before the act passed, the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island (ACSPI) was already testing and flying drones and training small drone operators. But with “the FAA Reauthorization Act signed in October 2018, our community is able to establish its own test range, allowing us to serve the flight test needs of the Department of Defense and industry as well,” said Amos Philemonoff, tribal council president for ACSPI, as part of the announcement that ACSPI was partnering with Sabrewing Aircraft Company to expand their aeronautics operations.
UAS operations and training will be based out of the St. Paul eXperimental Test Range Complex, or SPxTR Complex, located on St. Paul Island, which is centered in the Bering Sea and is approximately 770 miles west of Anchorage. It’s the largest manned and unmanned aircraft test range in the region and one of the largest in North America.
Sabrewing and ACSPI signed a $43 million agreement in February 2019 in which Sabrewing, a manufacturer of unmanned heavy-lift commercial cargo air vehicles, will provide a mix of up to ten aircraft for testing at the SPxTR Complex.
In May 2020, at Agility Prime 2020, Sabrewing unveiled its prototype Rhaegal-A unmanned VTOL cargo aircraft, one of the aircraft that will be tested at SPxTR. Ed de Reyes, CEO of Sabrewing, said at the virtual event, “With the help of our partners, Sabrewing has been able to create something that’s unique and exists nowhere else on Earth.”
The Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration partners with entities across the state for research and data collection projects.
The aircraft is being specifically designed with customers in mind. After several sessions of customer feedback, Sabrewing designed the Rhaegal with the capability to deliver cargo to remote locations; fly in weather too dangerous for human crews; use the same fuel tools currently used in commercial fleets; accommodate standard cargo containers; enter service on date-of-purchase; be easy to learn to fly; and complete its mission even if it loses communication with the ground.
The Rhaegal-A is a half-size version of the Rhaegal-B, which will be the full-size commercial aircraft. De Reyes explained the Rhaegal-A is providing a “parallel development path” during the testing process, and even at half-size has a payload of up to 1 metric tons.
The full-size Rhaegal-B will have a vertical takeoff load of 5,400 pounds and a conventional take off payload of more than 10,000 pounds. Both the Rhaegal-A and Rhaegal-B are capable of flying at 22,000 feet at a speed of 250 miles per hour. Cargo is loaded through the nose of the craft, which has been designed to “kneel” to facilitate easier loading. The Rhaegal-B can carry four LD1, two LD2, or two LD3 containers, all fully loaded.
The Rhaegal-A and Rhaegal-B will be able to land without any pad, including on soft snow or sand or in marshy areas. “The aircraft is designed to open new locations and deliver cargo where no fixed-wing or helicopter can go, and it’s also designed to land in locations where there is no pad or any other kind of structure,” de Reyes said.
He also announced that the military variant of the Rhaegal-B will be named after the Aleuts, in honor of the partnership with ACSPI and its commitment to building community.
“[SPxTR is] the best large UAV test range that I’ve ever seen in the thirty-one years that I’ve been testing and certifying aircraft.”
Sabrewing will also provide test equipment, telemetry, and other equipment that will allow for operations at SPxTR to benefit the company as well as other customers. It’s also supplying portable, remote operations and telemetry stations for aircraft testing.
Sabrewing will use the SPxTR Complex to research and develop its aircraft designs as well as conduct FAA certifications for the vehicles. De Reyes says of the SPxTR Complex: “It’s the best large UAV test range that I’ve ever seen in the thirty-one years that I’ve been testing and certifying aircraft.”
John Nevadmonsky, director of research, development, test, and evaluation for Sabrewing, says, “The SPxTR Complex has the capacity of testing any aircraft over the Bering Sea—with more space and capability than any test range that I’m familiar with.”
The ACSPI/Sabrewing partnership extends to jointly bidding on Department of Defense federal contracts. ACSPI has been developing Awalix, a wholly-owned subsidiary that is in the final stages of being certified in the 8(a) program. It was registered as an LLC in April 2020 and in December 2020 received notification from the US Small Business Administration that its 8(a) paperwork had been received and accepted for processing. “This stage represents a ’90 percent complete’ moment, and the most significant hurdle (that of the SBA accepting the application) has been met,” according to ACSPI’s 2020 newsletter.
The organization anticipates that Awalix will be fully-formed in 2021 and can start accepting contracts.
ACSPI and Sabrewing are also creating a joint venture to provide UAS pilot training, maintenance and dispatcher training, and aircraft replacement and spare parts. ACSPI is already well-versed in technical training. It offers UAS training and curriculum to Alaska Native and Native Americans nationwide through a partnership with Advanced Aerial Education.
Under the ACSPI/Sabrewing agreement, the joint venture will train remote operators, mechanics, and dispatchers for commercial customers who have bought or leased Sabrewing’s aircraft.
Sabrewing and ACSPI are looking at various approaches: “We’ve been discussing the possibility of using pilots trained by UAA to train new pilots to a commercial/instrument-pilot level of competency, after which we would them train them to operate our aircraft. This would help the new pilot to build hours towards an Air Transport Pilot rating—and also help alleviate the current pilot shortage as well. In discussions with the FAA, they’ve been very open to ways to train pilots to help reduce the shortage,” de Reyes says.
In February ACSPI was one of seven nationwide winners of the US Department of Commerce’s STEM Talent Challenge. The organization was awarded $258,535 to design and implement training specifically for community members to meet the needs of the aeronautics industry it’s helping to develop on the island. ACSPI is matching those funds with $535,503, bringing the total for the project to $794,038.
Dana Gartzke, Performing the Delgated Duties of the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development, said in a release about the award, “This grant challenge invests in workers through work-and-learn programs and apprenticeships, and these individuals become the backbone of robust innovative and entrepreneurial economies.”
An unmanned aerial vehicle launches to collect video of important wildlife data as part of a collaboration between the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
According to ACSPI, its goal is to have test range and ground crew personnel for SPxTR trained by the Fall of 2021. “The test range positions will be high skill, high pay, and very technical positions with ample on-the-job training and support, while the ground crew will be targeted to entry level and skilled positions with additional on-the-job training and mentoring support.”
Mentoring will be provided by Sabrewing employees as well as the organization’s current educational partners: Iļisaġvik College and the Bristol Bay Campus of UAF.
“Our goal is to train and staff a full service and support staff for the test range and operations and to have these individuals earn good pay, learn great skills, and create viable and sustained careers for themselves and their families,” ACSPI states.
The development of industry and jobs are a boon for the residents of St. Paul, but UAS technology itself holds a lot of potential benefit for the community. For those living on St. Paul, getting on or off the island can be a matter of life or death. The efficient aerial movement of people and supplies isn’t a pleasant fantasy but a clear path to a safer, more connected community.
But as we’ve seen time and time again, vital technology always moves to a consumer market—so it might not be long before we finally see those flying cars.
“We’ve been discussing the possibility of using pilots trained by UAA to train new pilots to a commercial/instrument-pilot level of competency, after which we would them train them to operate our aircraft. This would help the new pilot to build hours towards an Air Transport Pilot rating—and also help alleviate the current pilot shortage as well. In discussions with the FAA, they’ve been very open to ways to train pilots to help reduce the shortage.”