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Drones take flight in Alaska to survey wildlife

Alaska’s drone test site, one of six U.S. research locations selected to develop guidelines for “unmanned aircraft systems,” or drones, became operational Monday, the Federal Aviation Administration said.

The FAA authorized the University of Alaska in Fairbanks to conduct wildlife surveys for two years, using the small, 3-pound Aeryon Scout aircraft.

“The main purpose of the operation is to show how a drone can accurately locate, identify and count large wild animals, such as caribou, reindeer, musk ox and bear for survey operations requested by the state of Alaska,” the agency said in a statement released Monday.

In December, the FAA chose six states — Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia — to host research sites that gather data to help the agency decide how best to integrate drone flights into the national airspace by September 2015.

In an interview with NPR, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said that the public concern surrounding drones informs the meticulous approach the agency is taking to carve open space in the skies for the pilotless aircraft:

“This is something that is very new to a lot of people. And while a lot of people see great potential, other people — in fact, sometimes the same people — have significant concern about, what does it mean? And what this really argues for is a very thoughtful, a very deliberative, a very consultative approach to how we gradually open up the skies to the use of unmanned aircraft.”

The FAA had projected that as many as 7,500 commercial drones could be flying within five years after gaining access to U.S. airspace.