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University of Alaska Fairbanks

ACUASI completes first drone flight from Nenana to Fairbanks International Airport

Alaska’s leading public uncrewed aircraft program made another significant advance Friday when a drone flew from the Nenana airport and landed at Fairbanks International Airport.

The flight, conducted by a University of Alaska Fairbanks research center, was the first in Alaska of a drone departing one airport and arriving at a controlled airport.

The Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration achieved the milestone when its SeaHunter aircraft touched down at the Fairbanks airport’s general aviation area at about 11:15 a.m. on Sept. 8, 2023, after making the 45-mile flight from Nenana.

The Federal Aviation Administration required ACUASI to have visual contact with the drone from either the ground or a chase aircraft for the entire flight. ACUASI used a Robinson 44 helicopter as the chase aircraft.

ACUASI, a unit of the UAF Geophysical Institute, last year flew its SeaHunter aircraft out of the Fairbanks airport and back in a designated flight pattern used for departures, arrivals and runway approach practice. That flight was the first civilian large drone operation at an international airport in Alaska. 

“These are some of the first steps for drone deliveries across Alaska,” ACUASI Deputy Director Nick Adkins said of Friday’s flight. “With the control tower at FAI and a route along the Tanana River, the drone and support team encountered almost all of what is needed to fly from Fairbanks to Galena, for example.

“A flight like this allows testing and proving of command and control links, aircraft capability, detect and avoid technologies, controlled and uncontrolled airport operations, and integration of the drones and crew into the National Airspace System,” he said. 

The SeaHunter is a twin-engine, 299-pound fixed-wing aircraft with a 16-foot wingspan. It carries enough fuel to fly for 10 hours.

A pilot of a crewed or uncrewed aircraft wanting to enter the controlled, Class D airspace of Fairbanks International Airport must first contact the airport’s approach control. The pilot then must contact the Fairbanks tower for further instructions and contact airport ground control to taxi to the hangar.

Nenana is a different class of airspace and has no control tower to help with aircraft traffic flow. Pilots use a common traffic frequency to announce their aircraft’s position and their intentions to others flying in the area. 

In addition to regular airline service, Fairbanks International Airport controllers also handle traffic from Ladd Army Airfield at Fort Wainwright, Metro Airfield in South Fairbanks and Chena Marina float pond.

“What we are doing is demonstrating that drones can and will be able to integrate into normal operations at airports,” Adkins said.

The flight into Fairbanks International Airport resulted from work that began in February 2018 to obtain approval from the FAA, managers at the Fairbanks International Airport Operations Department, Nenana airport and from the Fairbanks Air Traffic Control Tower.

Friday’s successful flight followed two flights from Fairbanks to Nenana earlier in the week.

UAF is one of seven FAA-designated unmanned aircraft systems test sites established to develop and test drone technology. It has numerous flight test areas around the country. ACUASI manages and operates the test site.

ACUASI has become a national leader in implementing the safe operation and integration of unmanned aircraft. It sponsored the first Global Autonomous Systems Conference last month in Anchorage. The 2024 conference is scheduled for Aug. 13-15 and will again be held at Anchorage’s Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center.