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Drone program takes off in Bethel with first round of federal funding

Students learn how to operate a drone during a three-day training session as part of the state's Alaska Rural Remote Operations Work Plan (ARROW) program in Bethel on April 11, 2024.
Alaska DOT&PF
Students learn how to operate a drone during a three-day training session as part of the state's Alaska Rural Remote Operations Work Plan (ARROW) program in Bethel on April 11, 2024.

The Western Alaska hub community of Bethel has just 16 miles of roads, hemmed in on all sides by wilderness. But zoom out, and a vast regional travel network – including the roughly 300-mile Kuskokwim River Ice Road – begins to emerge.

That's where Ryan Marlow, drone program manager for the Alaska Division of Statewide Aviation, sees an opportunity to expand the footprint of drones and remote sensing technology well off the road system. It starts with public safety, and begins with the ice road.

“When you start to have every community that has the ability to digitally scan open-water holes, or take pictures, or have Starlink connectivity to be able to make a report that, ‘Hey, a car fell through right here,’ you can start to see that we're not just depending on a single person to say the road’s safe,” Marlow said during a drone training in Bethel on April 12.

Marlow has played a key role in launching the state’s Alaska Rural Remote Operations Work Plan (ARROW) program. It recently secured $2 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation, and aims to improve disaster response, protect critical infrastructure, and ensure the safety of the state’s far-flung residents.

“If it works in Alaska, it works anywhere, and Bethel is the proving ground for a lot of this technology,” Marlow said. “We are seeing these massive leaps and showcasing to the community, ‘Hey, this tech is here. And it's being operated by folks in Bethel moving forward.’”

In mid-April, Marlow flew into Bethel to host an intensive three-day training session alongside state and federal transportation employees and trainers from leading U.S. drone manufacturer Skydio.

At the end of the third day, Association of Village Council Presidents transportation manager Eric Evon, one of five attendees from the tribal consortium, was already brainstorming ways the technology could be put to use.

“One of the things that impressed me the most about this tech was, I can have somebody — let's say in Oscarville — turn it on and I can fly it from here. And then I can take images, take a recording or whatever I need,” Evon said. “It's been mind-blowing, to say the least.”

The training team brought along the Skydio X10, a new super-compact drone able to fly in zero light, automatically complete 3D structure scans, and travel as fast as 45 mph.

The team also brought along elements of a compact system based around the X10 that can be deployed easily to the state’s most remote communities. It combines the drones with Starlink low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellite units and backup batteries. Once deployed, these systems can provide real-time aerial support for numerous 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 said. “We had a couple Starlink units out here, and they were successful immediately. And so we're like, 'How do we miniaturize this technology?'”

Not just another grant

Bethel and nine other Alaska communities chosen for the ARROW program beat out hundreds of applicants to capture 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 will be essential for ensuring millions more in grant funding flows into the ARROW program.

“We worked really hard to not just be another grant coming into town,” Marlow said. “We're looking for long-term sustainment with these and having that workforce development.”

Fortunately, the program can point directly to high school students like senior Bryan Jones of Quinhagak, who attended the training and linked up with representatives of Alcan Electrical and Engineering also in attendance.

If Jones chooses to accept, he can be compensated at union rates by the Alaska contractor for any drone scanning he completes during the period of the grant. All he needs to do is pass the federal Part 107 exam and obtain his drone license, which he plans to do in Bethel this summer.

Jones said the training opportunity, including the chance to control a drone on the Delaney Park Strip in Anchorage via a cellular connection from Bethel, was like nothing he’s ever experienced.

“Controlling from Anchorage to here with Starlink, that technology I’ve never seen before. And that's a first,” Jones said.

There are a lot of firsts at play with the ARROW program, alongside uncertainties about funding. But if the program achieves its goals on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta over the coming years, it is unlikely to be the last to take off in Bethel.

Evan Erickson is a reporter at KYUK who has previously worked as a copy editor, audio engineer and freelance journalist.
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