Above: map showing the location of Department of the Interior UAS flights in the Great Basin Geographic Area in 2017.
(Originally published at 10:10 a.m. MT February 22, 2018)
The Department of the Interior (DOI) is rapidly adopting the use of drones, or unmanned aerial systems (UAS). In 2017, 200 certified pilots flew 4,976 flights in 32 states. The largest category of flights, 39 percent, was for training and proficiency, with 30 percent used for mapping and 14 percent for interagency fire management. About 1 percent was for search and rescue — 29 flights in Southern California, 16 in the Great Basin, and 1 in the Southwest. Law enforcement accounted for 75 flights.
The Department’s fleet of 312 unmanned aircraft managed by the Office of Aviation Services supported everything from fighting wildfires to monitoring dams and mapping wildlife.
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 data and information gathered during these flights helped support strategic planning for fighting wildfires through the detection of hotspots, improved mapping, and advanced monitoring of wildfires.
“The Department of the Interior has worked hard to build a UAS program that is a leader in non-Department of Defense applications,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Safety, Resource Protection, and Emergency Services Harry Humbert. “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 aircraft are fitted with video cameras, infrared heat sensors, and other equipment that instantly deliver high resolution images. The DOI unmanned fleet includes 3DR Solo Quadcopters and Pulse Vapor 55TM Helicopters. The newest addition, a Hybrid VTOL Fixed-Wing, joins the fleet in early 2018.
“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,” said 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 suppression operations, especially during times when traditional firefighting aircraft can’t fly due to smoky conditions.