With a fleet of 312 unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), the U.S. Department of the Interior’s (DOI) 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 has announced.
In its newly released report, the DOI summarizes flights made by more than 200 certified pilots in 32 states. Notably, drone flights increased 82% from 2016 to 2017, the agency says.
“Interior is committed to preventing the spread of catastrophic wildfires through smarter and more aggressive practices and tactics,” says Ryan Zinke, DOI secretary. “I had the opportunity to join our wildfire professionals last year and was able to test some of the technology that is now being used. After seeing the capabilities, I know it will continue to make a big difference in firefighting. The UAS program is a perfect example of leveraging technology to fight fires in safer and more efficient ways to ensure we are protecting the men and women on the fire line, members of the public, and local communities. Coupled with more aggressive fuels management, this technology will help prevent and control catastrophic wildfires.”
This past fire season, the DOI conducted 707 drone missions on 71 individual wildfires. Drones were used by firefighters to gain a tactical advantage on wildfires by allowing them to improve their surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, the agency says. The data and information gathered during these flights was then used to support strategic planning for fighting wildfires. These advancements support the safety of firefighters and the public through the detection of hotspots, improved mapping and advanced monitoring of wildfires, according to the DOI.
“The Department of the Interior has worked hard to build a UAS program that is a leader in non-Department of Defense applications,” says Harry Humbert, deputy assistant secretary for public safety, resource protection and emergency services. “This technology opens limitless possibilities for resource managers. The department is proud of the collaboration that uses technology to support wildland fire and natural resource management more safely and more efficiently than ever before.”
The program started flying missions in 2010 with 208 flights. The DOI unmanned fleet includes 3DR Solo quadcopters and Pulse Vapor 55TM helicopters. The newest addition – a hybrid, vertical takeoff and land, fixed-wing drone – joined the fleet earlier this year.
Over the past seven years, the DOI says it has seen drones accomplish missions faster and cheaper than traditional aviation.
“We’ve helped DOI programs accomplish their goals for an average of one-tenth of the cost in one-seventh the time of traditional means,” says Jeff Rupert, acting director of the office of wildland fire. “Adding drone support to fire-suppression efforts could dramatically reduce the size and cost of wildfires – potentially saving millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of acres with triple the hours of critical aviation support.”
The next stage of the department’s UAS program starts soon with the testing of a new class of drones to assist in fire suppression and fuels management. Scheduled for field trials later this spring, the new drones could assist firefighters with prescribed fires and with suppressing operations, especially during times when traditional firefighting aircraft can’t fly due to smoky conditions, says the DOI.
Since 2016, the DOI has provided wildfire location data to private drone operators to prevent interference with firefighting operations. With system updates in 2017, the public now has access to location data for fires reported by DOI and the U.S. Forest Service within the last eight days in Alaska, Texas, Wyoming, North Dakota, and California via the GeoPlatform ArcGIS Online.
Mark Bathrick, director of the office of aviation services, sees the increasing use of drones as a chance to improve safety and efficiency of land and resource management:
“We are always looking for ways to improve safety,” he says. “Aviation accidents have been the leading cause of fatalities among field biologists. Increasing the use of UAS, or drones, can increase safety for certain missions. Drones can also instantly deliver high-quality data for a fraction of the cost of traditional flights.”
The full report can be found here.