University of Alaska’s drone program gets FAA waiver designed to facilitate UAV testing

FAA drone University Alaska

A division of the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) specializing in drone development and operation has been given a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) waiver allowing experts to directly assess the air worthiness of craft and oversee their testing in various operational scenarios and certification trial runs.

The UAF says the special FAA waiver permits its Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration (ACUASI) unit to determine the reliability of drones that companies and research organizations seek to use in trial flights. The authorization acknowledges ACUASI’s own expertise in evaluating the safety of UAVs turning to the program’s oversight in trials, and in doing so seeks to eliminate a lot of the paperwork and delays involved in having to petition for approval from regulators on a case-by-case basis.

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The FAA waiver covers all drones under 300 pounds, and places both the decisions about their airworthiness and management of testing involved into the hands of UAF and ACUASI officials.

The ACUASI was created in 2012 as a division of the UAF’s Geophysical Institute for drone-related research, and now heads the university’s broader UAV program and activities. As part of its work, the unit has established seven airspace ranges used for testing in Alaska, and several more in other states.

That has led to the UAF’s program being named as one of the seven FAA-designated drone system test sites in the US, and it being granted a waiver from the regulator in 2018 to operate beyond visual line of sight flights under the BEYOND program.

ACUASI director Cathy Cahill says the new authorization from the FAA for the UAF to itself evaluate the airworthiness of drones for testing is both a major vote of confidence for the organization, and a means of eliminating heavy administrative procedures that slow the launch of trials down.

“We were just handed a tool to help aircraft manufacturers get their drones certified for use,” Cahill said. “The FAA entrusted ACUASI with this waiver as a result of years of conducting safe public aircraft operations under similar regulatory conditions… (It) now allows our civil customers to conduct testing and evaluation of aircraft beyond pure aeronautical research. The FAA is allowing the test site to test and evaluate larger drones under real-world conditions. This will allow us to support the development of a strong drone economy in Alaska and across the nation.”

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