FAA grants wide authority to Alaska Fairbanks UAS test site to conduct developmental operations

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has granted a four-year regulatory waiver to the University of Alaska Fairbanks unmanned aircraft systems test site. The decision supports aircraft manufacturers and operators in proving the safety of their drones so they can be certified for flight in the national airspace system.

The Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration, ACUASI, a unit of the UAF Geophysical Institute, manages and operates the test site.

The waiver covers a variety of research and developmental operations. It applies to unmanned aircraft that weigh under 300 pounds. Previously, applicants seeking to conduct these operations were required to go through a lengthy process of applying for a special airworthiness certificate and to petition for exemption to various regulations. Both are time consuming and resource-intensive for the FAA and the applicant, according to a report by UAF Geophysical Institute.

Under terms of the waiver, ACUASI will be responsible for assessing the airworthiness of a customer’s unmanned aircraft and its procedures. They will use their own internal processes to determine whether a customer’s unmanned aircraft operation can be conducted safely. ACUASI will have control of all operational aspects under the waiver.

The FAA’s decision came just over two years after the state requested the waiver. Gov. Mike Dunleavy, U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, and the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities voiced their support for the waiver so that industry could conduct research and development testing with minimal paperwork.

ACUASI Director Cathy Cahill said: “The FAA is allowing the test site to test and evaluate larger drones under real-world conditions,” she said. “This will allow us to support the development of a strong drone economy in Alaska and across the nation.”

ACUASI achieved a historic milestone in 2022 when one of its unmanned aircraft flew from Fairbanks International Airport in controlled airspace. The flight was the first civilian large drone operation from an international airport in Alaska. ACUASI owns a variety of unmanned aircraft, as well as ground control stations, antennae, generators and accessories. It has the ability to deploy anywhere in the world.

(Image: JR Ancheta/UAF Geophysical Institute)

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