Unmanned aircraft will have new role in oil spill response in Alaska

July 25, 2011


By Greg Walker, University of Alaska Unmanned Aircraft Program manager


During the week of July 11, 2011, BP Exploration Alaska and the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute successfully demonstrated the Aeryon Scout Micro Unmanned Aerial Vehicle as a valuable tool to gather aerial imagery to aid in oil spill cleanup efforts.  The compact and easy-to-use Aeryon Scout, designed for both surveillance and imaging applications, is uniquely suited to the difficult terrain and conditions seen in Alaska, easily handling the high winds and rain seen frequently in coastal areas. The demonstration focused on utilizing the small Scout to improve the effectiveness, safety and accuracy of Shoreline Clean-up Assessment Technique (SCAT) teams. Testing occurred at Fort Richardson and in Prince William Sound.


Oil spill response can be a massive effort that requires large numbers of specialized teams.  Shorelines are typically made up of a variety of different environments and cleanup equipment specific to each type of environment (e.g. sand, marsh, river mouth) must be prioritized and allocated. The SCAT process is an integral component of spill response that provides real-time information and recommendations for shoreline evaluation and cleanup operations. The process evaluates shoreline types, environmental conditions and available resources to form a plan to minimize harm in the event of an oil spill. By using unmanned technology, a team can remotely survey an affected area and provide rapid and accurate geo-referenced imagery for cleanup efforts.


Spearheading the use of new technologies for environmental protection, BP funded this evaluation. Over the week of testing, BP and Geophysical Institute personnel were trained to pilot the Scout, which flew in rain and winds up to 15 mph. The Scout is flown from a hand-held tablet computer and can be operated by guiding it along a map or by steering it through a video feed that is displayed in real-time on the tablet computer.  


“We were able to guide both the aircraft and the camera along the beach in an intuitive way at any altitude from six feet up to 200 feet by just touching the screen with the stylus” said Regina Ward of the BP Alaska Crisis Management Unit.   


The field demonstration was conducted in Prince William Sound. There, the Scout flew over the water and beach and collected imagery of the steep rocky shoreline that is difficult to survey using other techniques. Video from the Scout was streamed live to observers, demonstrating the system’s ability to deliver real-time data to situation managers.  


“This is a great example of the Scout’s ability to easily get a view of hard to reach areas, keeping people out of harm’s way, while quickly and accurately collecting data,” said Chuck Lownie of Aeryon Labs.


High-resolution geo-referenced images of the coastline were captured in Prince William Sound, stitched together to form a complete mosaic of the region of interest and used to generate a 3-dimensional reconstruction of the area.  


Aeryon Labs of Waterloo, Ontario designed the Scout as a multi-purpose imaging and surveillance platform. The three-pound Scout fits in a three-foot diameter and is battery powered.  It has a range of up to 1.8 miles, with flight durations of 25 minutes with payload. The Scout has a maximum speed of 30 mph. The aircraft has a flexible payload bay that can be hot-swapped with a variety of sensors.  For this demonstration the Scout carried either a 10x optical zoom video camera or a 5-mega-pixel color-mapping camera that provided both high-resolution stills and stabilized video.


To fly an unmanned aircraft in National Air Space, special permission from the Federal Aviation Administration is required.  


“The University of Alaska successfully worked through the Certificate of Waiver of Authorization process with the FAA, certified the airworthiness of the Scout and gained operational permission to fly the Scout outside Valdez Alaska,” said Chuck Lownie of Aeryon Labs.  


Though not required by the FAA for this operation, Geophysical Institute personnel deployed their Portable Airspace Surveillance System, the iPASS, to monitor air traffic out to 12 miles, to ensure the operation would stay well clear of any manned planes in the area.  


“Because safety is of the utmost importance, we employed our proven system to help our airspace observers be aware of any approaching aircraft in order to have more time to react if needed” said Greg Walker, Unmanned Aircraft Program manager at the University of Alaska.  


The overarching goal is to develop techniques to perform SCAT survey work in an efficient manner with minimal impact on the shoreline or critical habitat. This recent demonstration spotlighted the opportunities this technology offers to oil-spill response. 


“We are now planning our next steps and using the lessons learned from this week to organize our next deployments,” Walker said. “As this project progresses, we may discover uses for the technology that go beyond initial Shoreline Clean-up and Assessment to help in oil-spill response.”