A modified X6 drone owned by the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration is on display on Monday at a conference in Anchorage. The conference, at the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center, is hosted by the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration, which is part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute. The drone can carry up to 20 pounds, said Jason Williams, chief pilot for the center. Next to it is a smaller drone owned by the center. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
The drones that fly through Alaska’s skies can be employed for critical and even life-saving purposes, and Alaska’s chief medical officer, speaking at an Anchorage conference on Monday, gave one example.
Dr. Anne Zink said that when she was traveling in late July along the Yukon River, a resident of a remote village there went into seizures, apparently from a drug overdose. In that region, where there is only spotty medical and law-enforcement service and where cellphone service limps along at a rudimentary level, a drone could have swept to quickly deliver medicine to that or any other patient suffering seizures.
“If there was a drone that could be deployed to that community quickly, you could be able to provide naloxone, potentially an AED, potentially other medications as well,” Zink said, referring to a commonly used overdose-reversal medicine and to anti-epileptic drugs. A doctor or other provider could be on the other end of the call giving on-the-spot medical advice, she said. She didn’t discuss the patient’s outcome.
Zink’s description of ways that drones could be used for medical services came on the opening day of a three-day conference hosted by the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration.
Through that center, UAF and Alaska have emerged as leaders in the development and use of drone technology, said University of Alaska President Pat Pitney.
“We’re just in a prime position to take the next steps,” said Pitney, who attended the conference. “I think Alaska can be the first state to have commercial drone operations.”
There are numerous functions that can be conducted by drone, aside from quick delivery of medical services suggested by Zink, that are on the agenda for this week’s conference.
Those include assistance in management of emergencies like wildfires and floods, support for scientific research and support for industrial activity like oil and gas operations. Also on the agenda are sessions about development of regulations, industry best practices and new technologies.
The Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration started as an operation of UAF’s Poker Flat Research Range and has since emerged into a position of national prominence.
In 2012 it became its own department within UAF’s Geophysical Institute and in 2013 it was designated by the Federal Aviation Administration as one of six national test sites for unmanned aircraft. It has accomplished numerous technological and operational breakthroughs, such as the first “beyond-line-of-sight” drone mission in 2019 and establishment of a program in 2021 to aid the U.S. Coast Guard in its Alaska search-and-rescue and environmental-protection missions. In 2022 it conducted the firrst large-drone cargo delivery from an international airport in Alaska.
The Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems is on the verge of expanding its footprint. Earlier this year, the university’s board of regents approved a $3.3 million, 4,800-square-foot hangar at the Nenana airport to serve as a base for cargo-flight tests and other activities.
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