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    St. Paul Island Community Members Take Flight!

    Perhaps one of the greatest joys when flying to St. Paul is the approach to the island. The descent through the clouds to find a bird’s-eye-view of the island is breathtaking, especially in the summer time when the tundra has greened up and the wildflowers are blooming and the Bering Sea is crashing along the shorelines. It makes me wish I had my own wings to fly.

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    Taking flight. Photo credit: Veronica Padula

    While we might not have our own wings, we do have various tools that allow us to explore the world from above and gain new perspectives. We have planes, gliders, and helicopters. We can skydive, jumping headfirst into nothingness and stealing moments in the air as a bird might until our parachutes float us safely once again to solid ground.

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    We began each day with ‘droga’- mimicking the movements of the drone in flight to practice flight maneuver terms. Here human drones “going hot” and ready to take flight. Photo credit: Veronica Padula

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    One flight team takes flight in the school gym as they learn how to fly Alias drones as hobbyists. Photo credit: Veronica Padula

    But even if we need to keep our feet firmly planted on the earth, we have drones, or small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS), to see things from new heights. These aircraft operate without a human pilot onboard. Instead they are controlled by a remote operator who remains on the ground. Although you might instinctively think “military” when you hear the word drone, these tiny unmanned machines capable of flight can do so much more, including flying them for adventure as a hobbyist!

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    The first type of sUAS we learned how to use, the Alias (top) and practicing how to fly the Alias (bottom). Photo credit: Veronica Padula (top) and Quin Fitzpatrick (bottom)

    Yes, it is super fun to fly sUAS, but the wonderful thing about getting your Part 107 pilot’s license is that it opens many opportunities and career possibilities. That is because with your Part 107, or remote pilot certification, you can fly commercially. You can take incredible aerial photos and videos (cinematography), especially of all the gorgeous landscapes on St. Paul Island, then those photos or videos can be used on websites, in promotional media, or sold. Beyond taking pictures and video, commercial sUAS pilots are increasingly used for surveying buildings, roads, and land parcels. The use of sUAS is especially helpful in projects that endanger human lives, such as fine scale inspections of tall towers and equipment.

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    Learning how to use and rebuild the Alias drone. Photo credit: Veronica Padula

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    Practicing flight control and depth perception by getting the Alias through the hoop. Photo credit: Veronica Padula

    sUAS technology improves rapidly, and folks come up with new uses for sUAS all the time. Just ask Tyler, Quin, and Nick, our instructors from Alaska Aerial Education. On our first day of class Tyler asked us why we were taking the drone class, prefacing his question by saying that although he knows of many uses for sUAS, he hears new ideas for their use all the time.

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    Nick and Quin exploring St. Paul Island. Photo credit: Tyler Currier

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    Nick coaching Lauren on flying the Alias during the first days of class. Photo credit: Veronica Padula

    The St. Paul students had some new ideas for him as well. It was a rather impressive list. sUAS could assist during search and rescue efforts, could map marine debris along shorelines that are hard to reach on foot, help identify culturally important sites, track the reindeer herd for management purposes, provide wifi hotspots in out-of-service areas during emergencies, survey vegetation around the island, perhaps even track harmful algal blooms using infrared cameras.

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    St. Paul School as seen from above. Photo credit: Veronica Padula

    UAS has been used for all sorts of scientific research in other parts of the world, particularly wildlife research. Biologists are still addressing the challenges and complexities of mixing wildlife and sUAS. For example, sometimes bears’ heart rates go up when they see drones. However, sUAS can also protect endangered species from poachers, such as across broad stretches of Africa. You can check out projects happening in other parts of North America, including the Unmanned Vehicles for Improved Ecology and Wildlife Science (UVIEWS) project.

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    sUAS technology will be a huge help in monitoring St. Paul Island’s reindeer herd. Here the drone captured a portion of the herd comprised mainly of male reindeer. Photo credit: Quin Fitzpatrick

    With some strategic and creative planning, the sky is the limit for sUAS use. Well, actually the limit when flying is 400 feet above ground level – just one of the many things we learned during class. Turns out flying an unmanned aircraft for commercial use with your Part 107 Remote Pilot Certificate takes a bit more effort than hobbyist sUAS flight. There are lots of rules and guidelines set out by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and pilots certified for Part 107 must abide by them.

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    St. Paul students practiced taking pictures with the sUAS during the class. Here is a view of town from above. Photo credit: Aaron Lestenkof

    There are many concepts pilots must understand in order to fly safely, such as understanding how airspace is classified, how to read airspace rules using maps called chart sectionals, how to recognize safe flying conditions and understand weather reports such as METARs, TAFs and SIGMETs, especially in places like St. Paul where weather can change very quickly, and how the pilot-in-command and visual observer work as a team for safe flight.


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    Thanks to our intrepid and tireless instructors, students learned all these rules and concepts and much more. And I really mean tireless- our instructors worked day and night to fit 6 months of learning material into 2 weeks of instruction. Conversely, our students also worked day and night to fit 6 months of learning material into their brains. Many concepts were complicated and took some time to understand. But everyone hung in there, and helped each other to understand it. We also got lots of flying time in, which was always the reward for working so hard to understand such complex material.

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    Tyler showing one flying team how to fly the Phantom 4, the next step up from the Alias sUAS. Photo credit: Veronica Padula

    By the end of the 2 weeks, our brains may have been fried, but everyone is well on their way to tackling the Part 107 certification exam, and acing it! Stay tuned for when the Part 107 test is scheduled – St. Paul Island will have some very talented sUAS pilots at work very soon!

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    Tyler showing the class how to fly the Inspire 1, the most commonly used aircraft for commercial purposes. Photo credit: Veronica Padula

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