State and local agencies’ use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS, or drones) has exploded in recent years. In Alaska, the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (Department) has started using drones for critical infrastructure inspection and avalanche monitoring and mitigation.

With Alaska’s freezing temperatures and expansive geography, drones offer the Department a chance to get a unique aerial view of bridges and other infrastructure. However, the operator typically still has to travel a distance to fly the drone over these structures. To overcome that challenge, the Department introduced UAS “docks.” These docks are systems that allow full support for beyond visual line of sight drone operations. These docks significantly reduce operator and personnel time on the location. The docks provide a remote landing area which allows rapid and continuous deployment of drones. The flight path is programmed by an on-site pilot, and then the docks keep the drone and its battery warm to prevent icing, recharge the device and upload data to an interface through a satellite internet connection.

While these docks have certainly expanded the Department’s use of drones in the state, and increased safety and efficiency, there is another challenge that Alaska faces that could be mitigated by drones: avalanches.

Unlike many other parts of the United States, avalanches present a dangerous, deadly environment for many residents of Alaska. The Department will use docks to deploy drones as a way of monitoring avalanches. The drones will collect snow distribution data without the need for human interaction and provide the data to avalanche specialists who are hundreds of miles away. These specialists will be able to use that data to determine where avalanche mitigation may be necessary. This dock and drone combination will save days of travel and use of a manned aircraft. Data can be collected and analyzed in one day with this model.

Additionally, the FAA granted the Department approval to use a dropping mechanism from the drone that will trigger and redirect avalanches. This new mechanism and drone use will provide a new option for the Department for avalanche mitigation that requires less manpower and dramatically increases safety. Alaska’s dock-drone use case is yet another way that this technology is increasing efficiency and safety and decreasing cost, time, and labor for accomplishing many tasks that formerly took several individuals several days to perform.