Drones could reduce time caught in power outage

Wednesday, April 24, 2013 - 19:00
Entrepreneur wants to steer companies toward unmanned aircraft
The Aeryon Scout, a four-rotor drone by Canadian Company Aeryon Labs, drew attention for its role in bringing needed fuel to Nome in 2011. The drone, mounted with high-tech surveillance gear, was able to determine the path of least resistance for an ice cutter clearing the way for the fuel barge.

Filming Iron Dog racers out the window of his buddy’s Cessna 180, Eagle River’s Cody Kubitz couldn’t help thinking how nice it would be to have an unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, to do it instead.

Kubitz, a Federal Aviation Administration flight data operator, said he’s been in love with drones since working for Lockheed-Martin in 2008. As a remote-pilot operator for the large defense contractor, he remotely flew multiple planes in simulations, which he said is similar to what drone operators do when they pilot unmanned aircraft.

This March, he created Alaska Drones, LLC, a consulting group for Alaskan companies interested in adding drones to their operations.

“There’s a lot of need for drones in Alaska,” he said. “We’ve always been on the cutting edge for aviation technology.”

As an example, Kubitz pointed to the early use of Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) technologies, which enable pilots to navigate Alaska’s rough terrain and unpredictable weather systems even when radar coverage drops off. They were precursors to the FAA’s NexGen suite of technologies, which are expected to enable safer and more precise flight planning and piloting in the near future.

Kubitz thinks the same characteristics — lots of remote, difficult-to-navigate-places — that made Alaska an ideal testing ground for other aviation technologies, will make it an ideal place for the improvement of civilian drones.

The jurors of the 2012 Alaska Business Plan Competition agreed. They awarded Kubitz and then-business partner Danika Alexander first place for Kinetic Drone Group, an idea for a company that would provide aerial surveillance and videography.

The two dissolved the entity last year (it had started as a school project in Kubitz’ business program at University of Alaska Anchorage, and Alexandar was a fellow student.)

Now, Kubitz is striking out on his own with a new consultant group, Alaska Drones, LLC, based in Eagle River. The business is meant to assist Alaska companies as they incorporate drones into their operations before Sept. 2015. That’s the deadline by which Congress has directed the FAA to fully incorporate drones into North American airspace.

“There’s a lot of planning, preparation and coordination with companies that seek to use unmanned aerial systems, as far as navigating government regulations, acquiring equipment, and structuring their business to adapt to UAS,” he said.

Unmanned aerial systems, or UAS, is the government’s term for drones, which are still called UAV by some. The “systems” in the acronym is meant to refer to the fact that drone operation includes a system of components, including surveillance equipment, software, and a ground station of some kind, even if it is a laptop.

The unmanned planes Kubitz is interested in aren’t the kind that most people think of when they hear the word “drone” — those large, bulbous-nosed Predators, icons of the U.S. government’s semi-secret and controversial drone program overseas.

Kubitz is thinking more of the Schiebel Camcopter. It’s a 10-inch-long white helicopter used in Austria to monitor and evaluate power lines. It uses an infrared camera to detect spots where lines are overheating, enabling electric companies to institute fixes before they become problems that are more expensive to the company and potentially inconvenient to customers. Kubitz saw the Camcopter at last year’s Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) conference in Las Vegas.

“Usually power companies, they have a fleet of leased helicopters,” Kubitz said. “When there’s a power outage, it’s usually due to bad weather,” he said, making it difficult for pilots to safely get out to inspect the problem. A drone could be a more efficient way to do that, and less expensive to operate. It’s also a way to cut response time.

“It’s an intriguing concept,” said Matanuska Electric Association communications manager Kevin Brown. He said that, while the company hasn’t looked at incorporating drones in its operations, “We’re always interested in exploring new technologies that can help us improve reliability or recover from a large scale outage faster.”

Alaska Drones isn’t the only private company in Alaska looking to capitalize on the growing drone industry. Alaska’s become an increasingly attractive place for civilian-use drones.

At the University of Alaska Fairbanks, researchers have been testing drones for civilian applications for years. The university is applying to be one of six official FAA drone research centers. And as of Feb. 2012, the Alaska Arctic has been designated by Congress as a region where drones are subject to fewer flight restrictions.

Two outside drone consulting companies are already establishing offices in Alaska, according to a Nov. 2012 planning document from UAF’s Geographical Institute, which houses the university’s drone program. One of these companies, Atkinson Aeronautics, specializes in planning and execution of drone resources in warfare, according to its website. The other, Concurrent Technologies Corporation, is a non-profit that conducts independent evaluations of new technologies and applications.

There are also two Alaska-grown drone companies in the state. Northern Embedded Solutions, created by three UAF graduates in May 2011, makes custom hardware for drones being tested at Poker Flats Range in Fairbanks. And Airborne Technologies in Wasilla has long been in the drone game. It’s provided ocean debris tracking services to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration via its made-in-Alaska amphibious unmanned aircraft, called the Resolution, for several years.

Kubitz thinks the time is ripe for an Alaska-based drone consultant business geared toward private companies. He said he’s already talked to a couple companies about Alaska Drones, and he’s looking forward to the upcoming Alaska Unmanned Aerial System Interest Group Conference in Anchorage, to network and roll out his pitch to a wider audience of interested businesses.

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