The use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) has exploded in recent years as State and local agencies continue to find new and innovative applications for this versatile technology. The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOT&PF) recently expanded its UAS capabilities for critical infrastructure inspection with UAS docks and has approved UAS for a unique use-case—avalanche monitoring and mitigation.
Docks Provide Real-Time Link
Alaska’s remote geography and frigid temperatures present several challenges for the DOT&PF. First, while UAS can help practitioners gain a bird’s-eye view of bridges and other critical infrastructure, the pilots must typically still be onsite, requiring them to sometimes travel long distances and face potentially dangerous conditions to deploy UAS where needed.
To overcome this challenge, the DOT&PF spent nearly a year documenting and testing UAS docks. These docks are systems that allow full support for beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) missions for UAS. BVLOS missions, where a pilot does not need to physically see the UAS during flight, represent the next big opportunity for agencies to expand UAS operations and their benefits.
The UAS docks provide a secure remote landing place allowing for rapid and continuous UAS deployments, significantly reducing personnel time on site. Once these systems are set up and a flight path is programmed on site by a pilot, docks can keep the UAS and its battery warm to prevent icing, provide a platform from which to take off and land, recharge the unit, and upload its data to the web through a satellite internet connection.
“Using docks replaces some of the human support needs on the ground and gives us better situational awareness through data collection,” said Ryan Marlow, UAS/Drone Program Coordinator for the Alaska DOT&PF Division of Statewide Aviation.
The docks allow the DOT&PF to program flights for repeated data collection on a time schedule or on-demand, depending on the needs of the mission. While evaluating docks for emergency response along Alaska’s Dalton Highway, the agency deployed UAS morning and evening, capturing data for managers to conduct analysis from over 600 miles away. The DOT&PF could also share the collected data in real-time with other organizations and groups, which led to more effective communication and collaboration.
“Everything is controlled through a web interface,” Marlow added. “Users can access from home, work, or through a mobile device. These docks can provide a real-time link to the UAS, even during a mission, to anyone who needs access to the data. This greatly reduces the personnel needs of having to have experienced pilots onsite. Now, pilots can support these missions remotely, even from other States.”
Even with the benefits that UAS docks offer, the agency still needs a way to deploy them quickly to sites that are sometimes very far away. The DOT&PF is testing lightweight dock units that can be shipped on the small aircraft used to travel between locations in the State. The agency is currently preparing for a full winter trial of these docks with icing and snowfall to test durability.
Avalanche Monitoring and Mitigation
Avalanches present a dangerous and sometimes deadly challenge for the people of Alaska. In all areas of the State, even near its biggest cities, losing road access can result in critical challenges to residents, infrastructure, first responders, and the supply chain due to single entry and exit points. Deploying docks to support UAS monitoring of avalanches offers a potentially safer, reliable alternative to traditional methods.
Preprogrammed UAS missions can collect snow distribution data automatically without the need for human interaction, providing the data to avalanche specialists who are sometimes hundreds of miles away. This important information can potentially be used to make data-driven decisions on hazards and where avalanche mitigation may be necessary.
“Using a remotely deployed dock and UAS, organizations can now accomplish in a day what would have taken an entire team several days of travel and acquisition to do using manned aircraft,” said Marlow.
When it comes to actual avalanche mitigation, when conditions are appropriate, specially trained maintenance crews use military artillery and other methods to artificially trigger avalanches at certain sites. The DOT&PF gained Federal Aviation Administration approval to develop a dropping mechanism that will attach to the UAS and allow remotely controlled pinpoint explosive drops to trigger and redirect avalanches. This will offer an alternative mitigation option that requires less manpower compared to using military artillery, with the added safety benefit of reducing exposure times to personnel.
The combination of dock-based BVLOS operations and remote dropping capabilities is an advancement over all traditional methods of avalanche mitigation efforts. With these new capabilities, Alaska can monitor remote and difficult to access locations with high levels of precision to make highly informed decisions about where avalanches present the greatest risk. With the increased availability of avalanche risk data, the capability to precisely and remotely place explosives to trigger avalanches under controlled conditions represents an extreme improvement in safety for the public. This monitoring and mitigation approach with these new UAS-based technologies can serve to maintain high-risk avalanche corridors throughout the United States.
“The sky is truly the limit when it comes to UAS and their possibilities,” said James Gray, Every Day Counts round five UAS team lead. “We, at FHWA, are excited to see States continue to embrace this technology and integrate it into their ongoing operations processes.”