Why Alaska Will Become the Drone Capital of America

Dec 31, 2013 at 7:45 AM ET

When the word “drone” makes the news, it usually means that someone far, far away has just been blown to pieces. 

Yesterday was a little different.

The Federal Aviation Administration announced on Monday its long-anticipated list of states that will serve as test sites for the next generation of drones. To be clear, these aren’t your military-grade drones. These are the friendlier, nonlethal commercial drones. (Think Amazon, not Afghanistan.)

Topping the list of approved sites was Alaska, which wasn’t much of a surprise to those who follow drones: Alaskans have had a long-standing love affair with drones. (No, we’re not talking about those “Palindrones.”)

Alaska is roughly double the size of Texas, has few roads, and in many ways has become “an aviation-centric state” out of necessity. The state also has about six times more pilots per capita than the rest of the nation, and those men and women might find themselves guiding the next generation of drones.

Take, for instance, the Russian fuel tanker that was traveling through the Arctic waters of Alaska last year. It was carrying about 1 million gallons of oil. Rather than risk a potentially perilous journey to its port in Nome, Alaska, researchers deployed a small drone—an Aeryon Scout—to survey ice conditions before the tanker decided on its course. Drone researchers say the implications are great for Alaska.

“The Arctic is the canary in the mine for climate change,” Greg Walker, the program manager of the University of Alaska’s Unmanned Aircraft Program, recently told the Alaska Dispatch. “The Arctic has lots of need, it’s very understudied, and it’s hard to get there to study it.”

In fact, the first-ever sanctioned commercial drone flight took place over Alaskan seas this past September. ConocoPhillips, the oil giant and gas conglomerate, launched a ScanEagle UAV over the Chukchi Sea. Though the company has kept mum about its drone plans, it’s widely understood that it wants to use drones to monitor and prevent any oil spills.

BP test-piloted drones in 2012 over Alaska to monitor pipelines and oil fields. The resulting video (if you can ignore the blatant BP propaganda) explains exactly how the operation works.

“It’s a job to study a river flooding in Tennessee,” Walker said. “It’s really a job to study a river flooding on the North Slope.”