DOI issuing drone CWN contracts and purchasing dozens

The Department of the Interior is continuing their very aggressive movement into the world of drones. They have held training sessions to get scores of employees certified to operate the devices and are advertising and awarding contracts for call when needed (CWN) drone vendors. The Department has recently published at least four solicitations, awards, or special notices about drones and unmanned aerial systems.

contracts drones fires wildfires contracts drones fires wildfires

One of them was a justification to skip the process of accepting bids from multiple vendors and so they could

3DR Solo Drone
3DR Solo Drone

issue a sole source contract to buy 56 of the 3DR Solo drones (Quadcopters) and associated equipment. We have seen a version of the aircraft with a gimbal but without a camera listed for around $2,000.

Birdseyeview Aerobotics received a contract to supply “Fixed Wing Vertical Take-off and Landing (VTOL) Unmanned Aerial System (UAS)” potentially worth over $620,000.

The epidemic of CWN firefighting aircraft is spreading beyond large air tankers and single engine air tankers. The DOI has issued at least four CWN contracts for contractor-operated and maintained small drones to be used on fires.

At a May 11 briefing for Senators and Representatives about the upcoming “fire year”, Secretary 0f Agriculture Sonny Purdue threw a verbal jab at Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, saying Secretary Zinke frequently “brags” about how the DOI is moving rapidly into the use of drones.

Below is information from the Department of the Interior dated May 15, 2018:

BOISE, Idaho – As part of a broader strategy to aggressively combat wildfires, the U.S. Department of the Interior has awarded a Call When Needed contract to four U.S. companies for small-unmanned aircraft systems services. The contract, which is Interior’s first of its kind, will allow the agency to obtain fully contractor-operated and maintained small drones that are ready when needed to support wildland fire operations, search and rescue, emergency management and other resource missions in the Contiguous 48 States and Alaska.

“This contract reinforces our commitment to partnering with industry to provide our employees with the latest technology in carrying out their responsibilities as stewards of our nation’s public lands while also ensuring their safety is paramount,” said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. “This capability is key to implementing our new and aggressive approach to combatting the threat of large wildfires that I outlined in my Wildland Fire Directive last September.”

The award follows a lengthy process to develop mission performance requirements and select a range of experienced commercial providers to meet this need. Companies receiving awards included, Bridger Aerospace of Boseman, Montana, Insitu of Bingen, Washington, Pathways2Solutions of Nashville, Tennessee and Precision Integrated of Newberg, Oregon.

“As the recognized leader in the application of unmanned aircraft technology in natural resources, wildland fire, and land management applications, we look forward to supporting our Interior bureaus’ needs and those of our interagency partners with this first-ever contracted small-unmanned aircraft systems  resource,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Safety, Resource Protection, and Emergency Services Harry Humbert. “This strategic contract capability compliments the division and tactical level capabilities of our fleet vertical take-off and landing fixed wing and quadcopter small-unmanned aircraft systems, providing critical enhancements to firefighter safety and effectiveness.”

The contract consists of one base year with four option years. The total potential contract value is $17 million. Aircraft selected under the contract will be able to operate day or night, without a runway in sustained winds up to 25 knots and at altitudes consistent with typical western wildfire environments.

“These contracted small-unmanned aircraft systems will supplement the manned firefighting fleet by providing the capability to operate during dense smoke/inversion situations which often occur and have heretofore hampered the aggressive prosecution of destructive wildfires,” said Jeff Rupert, Director of the Office of Wildland Fire. “Infrared/thermal camera technology onboard these small-unmanned aircraft systems can penetrate smoke and gather/disseminate information to deliver critical situational awareness for incident commander. These sensors also provide us with the first real opportunity to collect, analyze, and archive relevant wildfire suppression and retardant outcome data since aerial suppression began in 1930.”

“Interior has a long history of collaborating and partnering with industry to provide our field and fire personnel with safe, effective, and cost-efficient commercial air services to meet unique mission needs,” said Interior’s Office of Aviation Services Director, Mark Bathrick. “Historically, nearly 70 percent of our manned aircraft missions are supported through commercial air services contracts. The capabilities of these contractor operated small-unmanned aircraft systems will provide our scientists, land managers, emergency managers, and firefighters with additional capacity to obtain enhanced sensing, increase employee and public safety, realize cost savings, and service Interior’s diverse and dynamic mission requirements more responsively.  This new capability fulfills another important element in Interior’s Unmanned Aerial Services Integration Strategy.”

Like their Interior small-unmanned aircraft systems fleet counterparts, these aircraft will operate from within the Temporary Flight Restrictions established over most large wildfires. This will enable them to take advantage of Interior’s unique authorities from the Federal Aviation Administration to operate beyond visual line of sight—a critical capability in the smoky wildfire environment. Their longer endurance will provide incident commanders with near real-time access to critical fire boundary, behavior, and hotspot location, enabling them to make faster, more informed decisions than in the past. In conjunction with the tactical and division level fleet small-unmanned aircraft systems Interior has already integrated into the wildland fire environment, these aircraft will enhance firefighter safety through the identification of emerging changes in fire behavior and escape routes.

Interior is currently working to bring small unmanned aerial systems to the hazardous aerial ignition mission, which over the last 13 years has resulted in the loss of two contracted helicopters and five lives. Future initiatives include the continued development of optionally-piloted helicopter technology developed by the Department of Defense to enable safe and effective use suppression of fires during the approximately 16 hours each day when night and reduced visibility currently prevent aerial support. Historically, 20 percent of all wildfires are discovered outside periods of traditional aviation support. Interior believes tripling the amount of active aviation support time on wildfires will have game changing benefits in reducing the time, area, and cost to contain wildfires.

7 thoughts on “DOI issuing drone CWN contracts and purchasing dozens”

    Boys and their TOYS !!~One might also believe that Secy. Zinke, has not done his homework ,on this mostly misguided idea . Sure, there may be a few specific instances where this technology is useful ;but Really ? If Interior [Dept.] thinks that this is a “Game changer” ;then they have really gone off of the rails !

    1. My company has been in the fixed-wing fire aviation business for twelve years and most recently the drone business. I recently heard the analogy comparing microwave ovens to drones. Microwaves are great, but you wouldn’t want to cook your turkey in one. The same applies to drones. They are truly amazing tools, but they’re not the best tool for all applications and they’re not the best for the aerial fire arena.
      If the DOI first defined the mission (aerial fire surveillance, hot spot detection,etc.) then sought out the most appropriate tool for the job, the choice would have easily been manned fixed-wing aircraft. The HD Daylight/IR/LRF systems and integrated computers available on fixed-wing aircraft far exceed the capabilities of any of the drones approved for the DOI fire contracts. Additionally, the total operating costs for fixed- wing aircraft would have been cheaper.
      The DOI has never issued a fire surveillance contract for fixed-wing aircraft. Why are they issuing them now only for drones? This is all about politics and money.
      I have to agree with Chuck on this one.

      1. John ;
        Thank you for the affirmation ;that I at least made some valid points ,in the post to which you refer .
        Obviously ,others seem to be on the USFS AND DOI bandwagon ,for whatever reasons .
        I have little faith in the management, theories, and execution of the aforementioned Agencies.
        There need to be policy changes, and I suspect that the IG ,should investigate the allocation of resources and the whereabouts of previous funding ,etc.

  2. Hi Chuck,

    I would love to disagree with you on this. There are some very real benefits to having some of the sUAS aircraft that are on contract. It is a shame to hear you only view them as toys. They are anything but that.

    The technology and real time applications are endless and with the insitu vendor, they have the current capability of hovering over a fire with radio repeaters and wifi. Those two components on a large incident could have very positive impacts with respect to some of the common denominators that we have experienced in tragedy fires.

    While I may not have the years of aviation experience that some do, I can see that most of the resistance with respect to sUAS integration is due to a desire not to change and the unwillingness to work together to form a solution.

    It is possible for sUAS pilots and manned aircraft to coexist. We need to be deliberate and cautious, just not obstructionist. I am very excited about what the BLM is doing. I think this is a good use of taxpayer money. They have been methodical and seem to be cost conscious with their approach.

    With respect to insitu, all of their pilots are real pilots, not Part 107 pilots.

    Lastly, the cost to operate sUAS are significantly less than manned aircraft.

    Do we really need to blow thousands of dollars to map a fire with a pilatus or a 206 when we can do it way cheaper and more efficiently with sUAS?

    I think we can coexist, we just need more time to get to know the capabilities and limitations of the sUAS programs.


  3. What I failed to mention in my post is there are certainly drones capable of providing the level of surveillance provided by manned aircraft. These would be predator drones and the like. However, the cost of just one of these probably surpasses the total value of the contracts issued by the DOI. Also, since hopefully no one is getting shot at while flying fire surveillance in the US, a predator drone probably isn’t necessary.
    Again, why would the DOI issue contracts for UAS’s for fire surveillance while never before having issued a contract for manned fixed-wing surveillance which provides a far superior product. Define the mission, then choose the best resource. Shouldn’t the contracts have simply defined what the desired product was without specifying UAS’s?

  4. For at least 40 years or so the USFS has owned and operated fixed wing aircraft with infrared mapping capabilities. At times they have also contracted for privately owned aircraft with similar capabilities. These aircraft fly the fire once and then are gone until they are ordered again, usually for the next night. And of course these aircraft are available to interagency federal and state partners.

    But loitering over a fire for 10 to 20 hours at a time providing real time video, serving as a radio repeater, and linking to tracking devices on firefighting resources is something that has not been done on wildland fires — at least not all at the same time on one platform. But a military Predator-type drone has been borrowed a few times to provide real time video on huge fires.

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