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Alaska's ARROW Drone Program Focuses on Community Safety, Resilience

Alaska's cutting-edge drone program will empower emergency responders to reach remote terrain, saving lives through the integration of aerial and geographic information systems.

Earlier this month, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOT&PF) launched its Alaska Rural Remote Operations Work Plan (ARROW) Program – an initiative to improve emergency response capabilities in rural Alaskan communities using drone technology.

The program combines uncrewed aerial systems (UAS) and access to the geographic information system (GIS), to allow Alaskan emergency personnel to better respond to natural and man-made disasters.

“Through the ARROW program, drones will be deployed in 10 key communities around the state for beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) inspections and situational awareness data gathering,” Dylan Blankenship, aviation development specialist at DOT&PF, said. “During emergencies, the drone technology will allow us to quickly assess situations, locate individuals in need and make informed decisions about resource allocation.”

In the vast and rugged Alaskan terrain, reaching remote or underserved communities during emergencies poses a significant challenge. The devices and the real-time information gathering they enable will be used as powerful tools in making services more equitable and accessible across the board.

“Data gathered using our new drone system will be integral in our response to natural and man-made disasters affecting critical infrastructure in historically underserved communities,” Blankenship said. “This is particularly important in Alaska, where many remote communities are vulnerable to natural disasters like earthquakes, wildfires, floods and extreme weather events.”

Federal grant funding played a large role in making the ARROW program possible. The U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) Strengthening Mobility and Revolutionizing Transportation (SMART) grant, established by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) with $100 million appropriated annually until 2026, provides funding for projects using technology interventions to solve real-world challenges facing communities across the nation.

“Our state's distinctive geographical features inspired us to seek out innovative solutions to improve emergency response and the idea for the ARROW drone program came from the realization that UAS technology could be a game-changer in this context,” Blankenship said.

Although drone technology is becoming more mainstream and supported on a local, state and federal level, users of the tech may still face barriers to implementation. In Alaska, those challenges include severe and rapidly changing weather, among others.

“We’ve anticipated issues related to drone operation in severe weather conditions, potential technological malfunctions and ensuring secure data transmission,” Blankenship said. “To address these, we're investing in durable, weather-resistant drones, rigorous testing and maintenance protocols, and strong cybersecurity measures.”

The DOT&PF has also taken the necessary precautions to help avoid any data privacy issues or physical safety concerns. The agency only collects necessary data, and any identifying information is anonymized during data processing in accordance with local, state and federal regulations.

“Safety and privacy are paramount in all our operations and our drone operators are trained according to FAA regulations, ensuring safety during flights,” he said. “Privacy is protected through strict data governance protocols.”

As the ARROW drone program continues to evolve, Blankenship believes that drone use in disaster response will become even more widespread in years to come.

“Looking forward, we aim to evaluate the program's effectiveness and consider a Phase II expansion, and this could involve extending the program to more communities, particularly those identified as historically disadvantaged,” he stated. “We hope to improve our data-sharing capabilities and further incorporate this technology into our infrastructure preservation and emergency response strategies.”
Ashley Silver is a staff writer for Government Technology. She holds an undergraduate degree in journalism from the University of Montevallo and a graduate degree in public relations from Kent State University. Silver is also a published author with a wide range of experience in editing, communications and public relations.