Drones Take Flight in Rural Alaska with Federal Funding Boost

Bethel Serves as Proving Ground for Drone Technology

In a groundbreaking initiative, the Western hub community of Bethel is embracing to enhance public safety and disaster response across its vast regional travel network. With a mere 16 miles of roads surrounded by wilderness, Bethel is poised to expand the use of drones and remote sensing technology far beyond the road system, reports Kyuk.org.

The Alaska Division of Statewide Aviation's drone program manager, Ryan Marlow, sees immense potential in this endeavor.

“If it works in Alaska, it works anywhere, and Bethel is the proving ground for a lot of this technology,” Marlow stated during a drone training session in Bethel on April 12, 2024.

ARROW Program Secures $2 Million in Federal Funding

The Alaska Rural Remote Operations Work Plan (ARROW) program, spearheaded by Marlow, recently secured $2 million from the U.S. . The program aims to improve disaster response, protect critical infrastructure, and ensure the safety of Alaska's remote residents.

Bryan Jones, a high school senior from Quinhagak, attended a training session in Bethel where he was introduced to the Skydio X10 drone and learned how to operate it.
Bryan Jones, a high school senior from Quinhagak, attended a training session in Bethel where he was introduced to the X10 drone and learned how to operate it.

As part of the initiative, Marlow hosted an intensive three-day training session in Bethel alongside state and federal transportation employees and trainers from leading U.S. drone manufacturer Skydio. The training team introduced the Skydio X10, a compact drone capable of flying in zero light, automatically completing 3D structure scans, and reaching speeds of up to 45 mph (72 km/h).

Compact Drone Systems for Remote Deployment

The ARROW program also introduced a compact system based on the X10 drone, designed for easy deployment to Alaska's most remote communities. The system combines drones with Starlink low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellite units and backup batteries, enabling real-time aerial support for various applications, including disaster response.

“We definitely learned from Typhoon Merbok. Data collection was our biggest enemy. We were collecting too much data that we couldn't transfer, we were having to send hard drives,” Marlow explained. “We had a couple Starlink units out here, and they were successful immediately. And so we're like, ‘How do we miniaturize this technology?'”

Workforce Development Key to Long-Term Success

Bethel and nine other Alaska communities were chosen for the ARROW program, beating out hundreds of applicants to secure the first round of grants from the U.S. Department of Transportation's Strengthening Mobility and Revolutionizing Transportation (SMART) program.

According to Marlow, workforce development is crucial for ensuring continued grant funding for the ARROW program. High school students like senior Bryan Jones of Quinhagak, who attended the training, exemplify the program's potential. If Jones passes the federal exam and obtains his drone license, he can be compensated at union rates by Alaska contractor Alcan Electrical and Engineering for any drone scanning he completes during the grant period.

A Promising Future for Drone Technology in Alaska

The ARROW program's success in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta over the coming years could pave the way for further expansion of drone technology in Alaska. While uncertainties about funding remain, the program's innovative approach to enhancing public safety and disaster response in remote communities holds immense promise for the future.

Photos courtesy of Alaska DOT / PF.

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Haye Kesteloo
Haye Kesteloo

Haye Kesteloo is the Editor in Chief and Founder of DroneXL.co, where he covers all drone-related news, DJI rumors and writes drone reviews, and EVXL.co, for all news related to electric vehicles. He is also a co-host of the PiXL Drone Show on YouTube and other podcast platforms. Haye can be reached at haye @ dronexl.co or @hayekesteloo.

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