Geophysical Institute purchases unmanned aircraft system

It only weighs about 40 pounds, but the Insitu A-20, an unmanned aircraft system, will provide a hefty boost to a variety of research projects throughout Alaska. The new system purchased by the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks has a 10-foot wingspan and can fly more than 20 hours at a time. The aircraft is robotic and controlled by an operator through a computerized ground control system.

Poker Flat Research Range will manage the new aircraft for the Geophysical Institute. Range Manager Greg Walker says there are many uses for the Insitu A-20 including wildfire mapping, trans-Alaska oil pipeline security, and large mammal mapping. Walker stresses that uses for the A-20 are many and varied because the aircraft can easily fly over and study areas that are difficult for people to get to. There will be opportunities for students to conduct research as well as for faculty. Arrangements may be made to accommodate applications from outside users.

Coordinating projects for the new aircraft will be different from the operations that Poker Flat Research Range is known for. During the winter months, the range launches sounding rockets designed for experiments overseen by scientists at the University of Alaska and other universities throughout the country. Poker Flat's new A-20 will enhance range activity during the summer months and expose Alaska users to cutting-edge technology.

"This endeavor provides the University of Alaska a novel platform to launch completely new startup research, while enhancing relevant educational opportunities in a new and growing industry," Walker said.

Alaska's newest unmanned aircraft system is the product of collaboration between Insitu, the company that developed the A-20, and the University of Alaska. Because this technology is so new, developers are constantly refining their models. Flying them in Alaska is ideal, not only to understand the aircraft's behavior in our climate, but also because airspace is less congested, which can provide many hours of flying time. Over the next three years, Insitu will work closely with Poker Flat staff to supply training, technology upgrades, and assistance identifying other uses for the technology.

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Poker Flat Research Range is located 30 miles north of Fairbanks on the Steese Highway. The first rocket launched from the facility was in March 1969. Since then, more than 1,800 meteorological rockets and more than 300 major high-altitude sounding rocket experiments have launched from the range. The range is owned and operated by the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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