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Unalakleet Civilians to Support Coast Guard Drone Response

Aerial view of Unalakleet during winter, with open water along the coast.
An aerial view: no sea ice along the coast at Unalakleet. Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media.

The Coast Guard is currently training seven Unalakleet locals to fly unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, as a remote response team.

The project director, Dr. Jessica Garron at the Alaska Center for UAS Integration, said this task force is a historic first.

“There’s been no organized training program put into place like this. Period. This is it. That’s why everybody’s watching,” Garron said.

John Henry, the Deputy Director of the Native Village of Unalakleet, first proposed the project to the Bureau
of Indian Affairs in 2018. He wanted to understand the feasibility of using a local UAS team to respond to climate-related challenges and improve the community’s resilience, independence, and decision-making. His team has studied coastal erosion, water quality, wildlife, and identification of historical and cultural sites.

The remoteness and scope of rural Alaska can make it difficult for the handful of available Coast Guard personnel
to conduct tests and respond to emergencies in a timely manner. Furthermore, with increased ship traffic in the
Arctic and a changing climate, they want communities to have tools to make their own decisions about the land they use to live and subsist.

“So it’s not a silver bullet … It’s not going to change the fact that it takes the Coast Guard 24 to 48 hours to arrive…
It will provide the initial snapshot of ‘this is what we have going on,’ and the situational awareness required to mount an effective response.” Garron said.

The project officially launched last November and will run through spring. The team hopes the model will be replicated in other rural communities in Alaska.

Image at top: The community of Unalakleet.

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