How drones are helping the Department of Interior save money and achieve more
By Dawn Stevenson
The Department of Defense (DOD) has been flying drones for years, but they’re certainly not the only part of the U.S. government to use them. Departments of Interior (DOI), Agriculture (particularly the Forest Service), and Commerce (the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration or NOAA) as well as the National Transportation Safety Board are achieving cost and time savings and expanding their work thanks to drones. Even FAA is exploring drone use at airports. Let’s focus on DOI—which, along with the U.S. Forest Service, is using drones for land management and emergency response missions.
DOI first started exploring drone technology in 2004 when it used a drone to get data during a Mount St. Helens volcanic event. The Department started to evaluate broad use of the technology and launched operational test missions in 2010. Today DOI is second only to DOT in scope of UAS activity, with 12,000 flights in 2017. Drones are used in several categories of missions, what they call the 4 S’s:
safety (reducing risk to life, limb, or property),
service (delivering superior benefits), and
savings (missions involving drones require an average of 1/7 the time with 1/10 the resources).
Going forward, the Department wants to start using drones also for sustainment and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, math and the arts). Missions include wildfire response, search and rescue, wildlife monitoring, hydrology, geological surveys, geophysical surveys, and monitoring and responding to volcanic activity. DOI made 707 flights responding to 71 fires in 2017. A huge benefit is being able to fly at night for fire response (they can only operate 8 hours/day with helicopters). A drone even guided trapped residents to safety as the Kilauea volcano erupted in spring 2018.
DOI issued its first UAS solicitation this May, for call-when-needed services. The selected companies are now the go-to roster from which DOI selects for specific drone needs. The Department tapped one of these selected companies for the first time in June for fire response. Under this contract and through partnership, the team is testing technologies such as optionally piloted helicopters that allow pilots to jump in helicopters to fly between missions so a UAS doesn’t have to get airspace authorization. Another area the team is looking to explore is data analysis.
Public outreach is central to all of DOI’s drone initiatives. Their missions have received zero public complaints, which Office of Aviation Services director Mark Bathrick attributes to an emphasis on FAA compliance, internal training, and outreach as part of every mission to show people the value of drone activities. The team also did public service announcements for drone pilots during fires with the message “If You Fly, We Can’t,” with some parallel messaging from FAA. Paired with a robust reporting process the department created, and with mapping of areas where pilots can’t fly, DOI measured a 32% decrease in drone incursions after that effort began. Evans’ work with FAA’s UAS team involves a lot of focus on outreach to both internal staff and external stakeholders, and we aren’t surprised DOI is seeing great payoffs from its focus on compliance and outreach.
DOI focuses a lot of energy on leveraging partners in the drone arena—collaborating as well as using resources and research. DOI has 21 federal and state partners currently, according to Mark Bathrick. They aim to learn from and build on successful programs, such as DOD, FAA, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), and FAA’s ASSURE Center of Excellence. To contribute to these partnerships, DOI created a master requirements spec of minimum drone capabilities with input from 400 people that they share with partners they mentor, because many don’t get the right equipment for their needs. DOI actually flew used drones from 2009-2015 handed to them by partner agencies and learned what they really needed—effectively free research to inform their ultimate solicitation for drones in 2016.
Collaboration makes sense, especially when U.S. Forest Service uses drones for disaster recovery and mitigation (including fire management and burned area emergency response after a fire); conservation planning and practice certification; forest, watershed, soil, and air management; and improved wildlife habitat management, all of which have some overlap with DOI. And everyone needs to work with FAA (just take a look at the list of current agreements between FAA and DOI). DOI learned early on that there were many lessons already learned that they could benefit from, and they’re now sharing their lessons with federal, state, and local entities through mentorships. Evans applauds the smart and efficient approach DOI’s UAS program has taken and is exploring opportunities to support such UAS programs as they launch and grow.
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