Photo courtesy of Deb Winkelman.
Photo courtesy of Deb Winkelman.

After 25 years as an elementary-school teacher, Deb Winkelman was looking forward to retirement. But it wasn’t the life of leisure she envisioned. “I knew I wanted to own my own business,” she said. So this CIRI shareholder, originally from McGrath, Alaska – a village on the Kuskokwim River 220 miles northwest of Anchorage – plunged headfirst into a venture that would take her throughout Alaska and to Canada, Hawaii and the Lower 48.

ArcticZone Drone utilizes unmanned aerial vehicles, known as UAVs or drones, for aerial photography, videography and inspection. Winkelman’s interest in this emerging field was piqued after watching a YouTube video of the Kuskokwim 300 sled dog race that was filmed using a drone.

“I thought it was so cool. I knew it could open up a world of possibilities,” she said. Winkelman’s partner, Chris Coyle, employs infrared inspection technology in his work as a radiographer/electronic technician, “and I started thinking about all the uses of aerial thermography – cell towers, pipelines, home inspections. It has unlimited potential.”

On Aug. 29, 2016, the new small drone rule for non-hobbyists, known as the Small Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Rule (Part 107), became effective. Under previous regulations, commercial drone operators had to qualify for a private pilot’s license – a requirement that could cost as much as $10,000. The new regulations require operators to receive UAS Operator certification, which requires passing an aeronautical knowledge test at a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-approved knowledge testing center and paying a $150 testing fee.

Winkelman wasted no time getting her license. “I retired [from the Anchorage School District] in the spring. The new regulatory framework was finalized June 21, and the regulations were implemented Aug. 29. The waiting list [to take the test] in Anchorage was tremendous, so I flew to Fairbanks and took and passed the exam Aug. 30. I may be one of only a handful of women that has taken and passed the test so far in Alaska, and probably the only Alaska Native woman of Athabascan descent and CIRI shareholder.”

The transition from educator to drone pilot isn’t as major a shift as one might think. Winkelman’s father worked for Wien Air (the first airline in Alaska, which folded in 1985), and both of her brothers became pilots. “I grew up surrounded by aviation. I feel like drones are ushering in a brand new era of aviation – something new to the airspace,” Winkelman said.

Drones are a serious investment. Quality models that employ stabilized cameras for shooting video and stills start in the low thousands. Add-ons, such as zoom lenses and thermal imaging cameras, cost hundreds extra. “I was nervous at first,” Winkelman admitted. “I talked to numerous people who told me, ‘Oh, I had a drone and it flew away.’ I have a friend who has a flight business who flew some clients to a remote site, and their drone crashed into the water.”

Training, she emphasized, is key. “There are definitely safety guidelines you need to follow – FAA rules and regulations, situation-based best practices and emergency protocols.” Winkelman started with a week-long training program in Colorado, followed by months of travel across Alaska and to Arizona, California, Canada, Hawaii, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington amassing a portfolio.

This summer, ArcticZone Drone documented the Matanuska River erosion that led to numerous properties in the Butte area being threatened by floodwaters. In late August, Alaska Gov. Bill Walker issued a state disaster declaration to support the Mat-Su Borough’s request for state assistance. “We were actually quoted in the governor’s disaster plan for helping to bring awareness to the situation,” Winkelman said.

As a teacher, Winkelman encouraged her students to be at the forefront of new technologies. “The challenge and excitement of this new industry is alluring, and to become part of something on the forefront of its release and use it to improve businesses and benefit the economy is rewarding,” she said. “Young Alaskans can be trained, certified and become pilots using this type of aircraft without ever leaving their hometowns. They have grown up in a world in which technological change and advancement is second nature to them, and the transition to using UAVs would be seamless. I’m excited to see where this new era of aviation takes us.”

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