Unmanned Aerial System Capacity

FY 2020 | 1 – Understand | 20-10-05

Unmanned Aerial System Capacity

Jessica Garron, University of Alaska Fairbanks
Contract Term: 4/1/2020-3/31/2020
Award: $40,000

Scope of Work:

In support of the project goal to fully define the capabilities and limitations of UAS to support oil spill response activities in the Arctic and sub-Arctic marine environment of Alaska, specific objectives for this work have been identified.

Objective 1 – Describe known UAS applications for oil spill response activities. The misperception that UAS can fly anywhere, anytime, to provide real-time data to all interested parties involved in an oil spill, is hampering the actual advance of these tools to support operational oil spill response missions. Identifying the known successful uses of these tools to collect supporting data for oil spill response activities is needed to realistically introduce UAS capabilities to the oil spill response community. To meet this objective, a thorough review and discussion of oil spill response support missions will be undertaken, inclusive of missions that can be flown in advance of a response, and those that can be flown after the response phase has been completed.

Objective 2 – Assess current UAS available to support oil spill response activities. UAS are a sum of their parts. A UAS is the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that does the flying, the payload that vehicle is carrying, the ground station that is sending and receiving the signals to control the aircraft and payload, and the power source to run the entire system. The primary physical components of UAVs are fairly clear (e. g. small vs. large, multi-rotor vs. fixed-wing, etc.), but technology supporting these systems and modifying their capacity changes daily. Part of this project will characterize the currently available unmanned aircraft that can be used to support all phases of an Arctic or sub-Arctic oil spill response or exercise. UAS platform analyses will focus on off-the-shelf technologies that are accessible outside of the research and development realm, and that can be defined at a high technical readiness level (Panetta & Potter, 2016). Part of the vehicle assessment will include the payload capacity, the ability to safely integrate alternative sensors onto the aircraft, and what flight controller configurations are available. Flight controller systems, power supplies, and other ground station components will be evaluated for efficacy and security.

An examination of UAS-based sensors that can collect data in support of a response will be included, as well as the aircraft requirements for their deployment. Not all remote-sensing sensors known to be able to detect oil have been successfully miniaturized for use on UAS. Reporting on the sensors currently available to support all phases of an oil spill response will include known limitations of the sensor technology, and limitations of those technologies when mounted to a UAS specifically. Additional descriptions of data processing requirements for the relevant sensors will be discussed as part of the analyses of operationally relevant sensors to support an Arctic or sub-Arctic marine oil spill response.

Objective 3 – Describe federal, state, municipal, and tribal requirements and policies impacting UAS usage to support oil spill response activities. Aviation requirements to fly UAS in support of an oil spill response range from legally binding (U. S. Department of Transportation Federal Aviation Administration requirements) to preferential policies requested by other government entities (e. g. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), State of Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G), tribes across Alaska, and others). The FAA is the primary governing authority for UAS in the USA. Airspace regulations and pilot requirements for the use of UAS in Arctic and sub-Arctic environments do not include the preferential policies of natural resource trustee agencies, but only those requirements mandated by the FAA. The UAS flight protocol developed with the natural resource trustees of Alaska (Garron, 2019) is not a comprehensive description of UAS policy, but the specific application of those policies to flight planning during a response. Compiling the UAS requirements from the FAA and the trustee organizations for data collection flights in non-emergency situations (exercises), as opposed to during emergency situations (response) is part of this work. Describing these requirements and preferences of all of these agencies, and how they work together is the key component of this specific work and the overarching project.

The training requirements to safely and legally fly UAS in support of a response are variable based upon the type of aircraft being used, are also not subject to resource trustee approval or preference. Minimum pilot requirements can often be met through online training courses and certification testing, but these certifications do not denote proficiency nor adherence to safety requirements specific to flights associated with an oil spill response. Part of this objective is to define the mandated training requirements for UAS operations for oil spill response support, with the aim of reducing the number of UAS pilots flying in support of an oil spill response to those that have received not only the appropriate training as mandated by the FAA, but also specific to the nuances of marine oil spill response activities.

Objective 4 – Describe best practices for integrating UAS into oil spill response activities. UAS accessibility to the public, and the increasing familiarity of the platform itself, allow for the production of potentially valuable data sets by UAS outside of the incident command structure (ICS) of an oil spill. However, UAS flights conducted by citizens outside of the ICS of the response will likely violate airspace and “hot zone” access restrictions put in place to maintain worker and public safety. Integrating UAS into oil spill response operations requires an understanding of the incident command structure itself, with emphasis on the branches of an incident management team that will be responsible for integrating the aircraft operations, and the data into the common operating picture (COP). Proper vetting of the supporting UAS pilot teams to ensure safe and legitimate flight standards is part of this process. The U. S. Department of Homeland Security Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) defines the roles of incident management teams for oil spill response. FEMA has already defined roles for UAS Teams (FEMA, 2017a) in response activities, and those roles have been leveraged in several Alaskan oil spill response exercises (Garron & Trainor, 2020 in review). This project objective will describe how UAS teams can be integrated into specific branches of the incident command structure of a response directly based upon prior case studies, legal requirements, FEMA- defined roles, and ICS guidelines.

Objective 5 – Define data management best practices for UAS support of oil spill response activities. How UAS data are collected, processed, and provided to decision-makers during an oil spill response has not been mandated as part of oil spill ICS. The lack of defined UAS-based data collection standards for oil spills decreases the likelihood that collections will be consumable by the COP, which in turn will reduce UAS data credibility (Garron & Trainor, 2020 in review). Data processing for different data products is reliant upon the aircraft, sensor, and the collected metadata, but does not yet have any bounds on the formats or time required to process those data into informational products for decision-makers. It can also be anticipated that without clear collection standards, it is unlikely that UAS-collected data during a response will be useable for the damage assessment phase of the response. Archival requirements have also not been defined, potentially reducing any legitimate future use of the data.

Complicating UAS-data utilization is the limited Alaskan communication infrastructure. Most of the Alaskan marine environment is inaccessible by road, which inherently reduces the amount of infrastructure available for communication as well, including delivery of digital data to the command post. Collecting, delivering, and archiving these geospatial data sets from remote locations in a way that they are accessible to decision-makers in the command post is not trivial. This work will describe key components to data collection procedures that will increase the likelihood of quality data being collected and delivered in support of the decision-makers of an Alaskan oil spill response. Pathways for real-time near real-time and asynchronous observations of potentially impacted marine resources will be described, as well as recommendations for data collection, processing, and integration into the command post, inclusive of long-term archival recommendations for damage assessment support.

The results of this project will provide the guidance and recommendations required for the efficient integration of UAS as a tool into Arctic and sub-Arctic oil spill response. Through direct communication with relevant agency representatives, understanding of this effort and clarification about any outstanding UAS integration ambiguities will be provided to relevant Alaskan agency partners. By addressing these five objectives, the project team will achieve the primary project goal to fully define the capabilities and limitations of UAS to support oil spill response activities in the Arctic and sub-Arctic marine environments of Alaska.