Search and rescue groups across Alaska are considering expanding their use of unmanned aerial vehicles, which have become increasingly common on the civilian market after their advent as military drones.
In a state as large and filled with treacherous terrain as Alaska, some say UAVs could be a way to send help without putting searchers in harm's way. On Thursday, Smith Services Alaska unveiled its UAVs at the state high-school cross country skiing championships.
Joshua Smith, the company's projects manager, says its UAVs can do much more than just take video of a winner crossing the finishing line -- they can assist in search and rescue efforts, with a special infrared camera recently added to one of the company's vehicles.
"So if there is a case where we need search and rescue we can throw it up," Smith said. "I've a got three-mile range with (one UAV) and a three-and-a-half-mile range with (the other UAV). We don’t require line of sight, so I can just put the goggles on and go -- go find whoever is out there."
The Poker Flat Research Range, at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, says it's already been in touch with agencies interested in the technology. According to range officials, in early February the Air and Army National Guard conducted a response drill with the UAVs.
“We learned, actually, the paramedic jumpers -- if they could own and operate it themselves, and have it as part of their kit, and they could bring it with them -- they would like to do that," said Greg Walker, the range's unmanned aerial systems director.
UAVs have been successfully flown at the Fairbanks facility in temperatures of 20 degrees below zero. Staff say UAVs could be a great help in search and rescue missions, but they also see problems the technology faces under Federal Aviation Administration rules.
"The airspace coordinations (with manned aircraft) are a huge problem for using them quickly, because you have to coordinate everything with the FAA and that takes time," said Kathe Rich, Poker Flat's research range manager.
With police officers across the country considering the use of UAVs to support or replace helicopters, Anchorage Police Department Chief Mark Mew said he also sees potential problems with employing them.
“The easy part (is) buying the equipment and training your people to use it -- the hard part is dealing with your community over the privacy issues," Mew said.
Mew says APD doesn't currently have plans to acquire UAVs, but he doesn't want to close the door on their possible use in the future.
Smith Services Alaska says it currently uses its UAVs for photography and remote construction.
Contact Mallory Peebles