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Flying machines for the dirty, dull and dangerous

Some places in this world are just too dirty, dull or dangerous for human pilots to fly. An airspace in the latter category is anywhere near gas flares in Alaska’s oilfields. With only a few seconds of warning, flames blast high in the air from a network of pipes, releasing the stress of sucking oil from deep in the ground.

Greg Walker recently found himself taking a look these fire-breathing nozzles near Prudhoe Bay, but he was barely close enough to see them from where he stood. He instead watched a “flying king crab” that buzzed around flaming flare heads 50 feet above the ground. The 2.5-pound flying machine captured video and five-megapixel images of the flares and their support pipes, some of them jacked by frost and needing repair.

Walker’s mission was to help oil-company workers for BP order expensive parts they need to replace during scheduled maintenance next summer. He used one of BP’s Aeryon Scouts, a four-propeller flying machine BP had purchased for use on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. BP collaborated with Walker and his team because they are experts on operating unmanned aerial vehicles.

As the manager of Poker Flat Research Range, part of University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute, Walker is assembling a fleet of these tools in an enterprise that makes he and his team very busy.

After visiting Prudhoe Bay to inspect BP’s flares, Walker was off to Kodiak to fly the Scout over the shoreline. He wants to use the flyers to see how harbor seals react to launches from a rocket facility on Kodiak Island. This is after a summer in which he and his crew traveled to Prince William Sound to test the Scout’s ability to buzz over beaches to help crews plan oil spill cleanups, and out to Dutch Harbor to see how effective a larger, fixed-wing flying machine was for mapping gatherings of Steller sea lions.

The unmanned aerial vehicle business is on the rise in Alaska, as more agencies come to UAF to work with Walker and his crew at Poker Flat. The university now owns nine Scan Eagles — 40-pound aircraft the size of California condors that the crew has used to map the boundaries of smoky wildfires and to count seals in the Bering Sea — two of the lunar-lander type Scouts, two similar models with more propellers than the Scouts, and three smaller aircraft launched by catapult.

Two summers ago, Walker and Don Hampton spent a month aboard a ship with biologists who were looking for seals that live on and around the northern ice. Walker and Hampton flew missions with a camera they installed in the aircraft’s nose. The camera captured more than 25,000 images, often on days that featured crummy weather, which underscored the Alaska niche for unmanned aerial vehicles.

“It’s hazardous to put humans out there,” Walker said. “If you’re out there (in a small airplane or helicopter) hundreds of miles from land, 400 feet altitude, if you have any problems at all, you’re dead.”

Walker, who ran his own company that designed and made control systems for unmanned aircraft before coming to Alaska in 1998, said the opportunities keep coming for his team, which includes Hampton, David Giessel, Kathe Rich, Ro Bailey and Jeff Rothman. During the next couple of years they will use unmanned flying machines to help sea-ice researchers, to sample volcanic ash and to monitor endangered Steller sea lions in the western Aleutians.

“The more you show the capability of these things, the more people come up with needs for them,” Walker said.

This column is provided as a public service by the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell is a science writer at the institute.