The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) will soon have the use of up to 50 vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) fixed-wing unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).
The agency awarded a contract to Birdseyeview Aerobotics of Andover, N.H., to produce the drones and train DOI personnel. The aircraft weigh less than 10 pounds each and are capable of carrying a variety of modular sensors. In addition to being able to take off and land vertically in confined spaces, the new aircraft have a service ceiling of 12,000 feet and are able to operate in winds up to 25 knots. With an approximate wingspan of five feet, they can be quickly launched from spaces with a limited area, such as a boat, the DOI explains.
“The extended range and endurance of these aircraft will provide our land managers, emergency managers, firefighters and scientists with expanded aviation capabilities that continue to reduce the risk and cost of carrying out missions,” says Mark Bathrick, director of the DOI’s Office of Aviation Services. “Adding VTOL fixed-wing UAS to our current fleet of rotary-wing UAS is timely as we work with our Federal Aviation Administration partners to extend the allowable range of UAS operations in remote locations or other areas where the terrain and other operational issues can restrict manned aircraft operations.”
The DOI expects to use these new aircraft across its mission portfolio to complement current capabilities. With a fleet of 312 UAS, the DOI’s Office of Aviation Services flew nearly 5,000 missions in 2017 to support everything from fighting wildfires to monitoring dams and spillways and mapping wildlife, the agency recently announced in a report. In 2018, the DOI is predicting at least a 50% increase in its UAS flights, due in part to the addition of this new fleet capability and the expected award of a commercial UAS services contract later this spring.
The extended range of the new drones provides increased safety and capabilities where the DOI has beyond visual line of sight authority within temporary flight restrictions, such as those established over large wildfires, the agency notes.
“Last year, thick smoke over some wildfires grounded manned aircraft for days, with only our UAS able to fly during these periods,” states Jeff Rupert, director of the DOI’s Office of Wildland Fire. “This expanded capability lets us continue our wildland firefighting operations in conditions that would stop manned aircraft and provide greater support to our firefighters.”