DOI makes it official — most of its drones are grounded

Drones used for emergencies are exempted — for now

drones Oregon mapping aerial ignition wildfires
A drone used in 2018 on the Taylor Creek and Klondike Fires in southwest Oregon.

The Secretary of the Interior has signed an order that effectively grounds drones used by the department’s personnel except aircraft used for emergency incidents. The official action signed January 29 by Secretary David Bernhardt confirms the grounding first reported by the Wall Street Journal in October, 2019. The order calls it a “…temporary cessation of non-emergency drones while we ensure that cybersecurity, technology and domestic production concerns are adequately addressed.”

In May of last year the Department of Homeland Security warned “about data security issues involving the use of Chinese-made drones, particularly those made by DJI. DHS said it was concerned about drones’ capacity to observe and transmit prohibited infrastructure surveillance and conduct cyberattacks,” CNET reported.

The DOI has approximately 800 drones, many of which have some components manufactured in China, and 121 were made by DJI, one of the largest drone companies in the world.

In a statement following the announcement by the DOI, drone manufacturer DJI said they were “extremely disappointed” in the DOI’s “politically-motivated” decision. The statement further said:

DJI makes some of the industry’s most safe, secure, and trusted drone platforms for commercial operators. The security of our products designed specifically for the DOI and other U.S. government agencies have been independently tested and validated by U.S. cybersecurity consultants, U.S. federal agencies including the Department of Interior and the Department of Homeland Security, which proves today’s decision has nothing to do with security.

And from NPR:

…DJI makes special “government edition” versions of two of its drones specifically for the Interior Department: the Matrice 600 Pro and Mavic Pro. Both models are listed as being in the U.S. agency’s drone fleet.

The Chinese company announced last summer that the Interior Department had independently validated its “high-security” drones during a 15-month testing period. The department seemed to agree, releasing a 53-page report in July recommending it use the special DJI drones.

The aircraft include firmware and software that is tailored to meet the agency’s requirements, DJI said.

But in Bernhardt’s order, he noted that the president had signed a memorandum in June stating, “I hereby determine … the domestic production capability for small unmanned aerial systems is essential to the national defense.

Presumably drone manufacturers in the United States will bend over backwards to ensure that their systems have no components made in China.

Joshua Resnick, the CEO of a new company, Parallel Flight Technologies, that is building a heavy-duty drone initially targeted for use on wildland fires, told us in November that their drones will be American made and will conform to security specifications required by the DOI and Department of Homeland Security.

Parallel Flight Technologies drone
Prototype drone designed by Parallel Flight Technologies. PFT photo.

Two bills before Congress would restrict the procurement of drones. H.R. 4753 would prevent the U.S. from purchasing any drones or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) from a nation identified as a national security threat. That would include China and Iran.

S. 2502 would require that no Federal department or agency may operate a commercial off-the-shelf drone or covered UAS manufactured or assembled by a covered foreign entity.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bean and Rick. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Erickson is working on a “pilot optional nighttime firefighting solution”

The company also announced improvements to the Air Crane

Erickson S64F+
Erickson image

Erickson, the manufacturer and operator of the S-64 Air Crane helicopter, has announced a new venture with Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin Company. They intend to develop a new “pilot optional nighttime firefighting solution”, integrating Sikorsky’s MATRIX™ Technology into a digitally enabled fire management system never-before used in night firefighting. Erickson said it will enhance cockpit awareness and flight crew safety during day and night operations.

We have asked Erickson for more information, but it sounds like it could operate with or without a pilot on board, in other words, remotely piloted or autonomous.

Sikorsky’s description of MATRIX:

Systems intelligence that will give operators the confidence to fly their large rotorcraft safely, reliably and affordably as autonomous or optionally piloted aircraft.

Air Cranes, which are sometimes referred to as helitankers, can carry up to 2,650 gallons of water.

A new Air Crane model

Erickson also announced a new production line of the legacy Air Crane helicopter, introducing the S-64F+.

The upgraded model will include composite main rotor blades, an enhanced cockpit and flight control system, an improved water cannon, and what the company calls a modern engine enhancing range and fuel efficiency.

New mission for Colorado’s Multi-Mission Aircraft

Monday night it was investigating the drone activity that has been observed in Colorado and other states

Drone Swarms
CBS News

One of Colorado’s two Pilatus PC-12 “Multi-Mission Aircraft”, primarily used for detecting and mapping wildfires, took on a new mission January 6.  Its new job that night was related to the swarms of drones that have been seen in recent weeks over Colorado and Nebraska.

There are reports that up to 30 drones at a time have been flying in sparsely populated areas of the two states. A number of agencies are trying to figure out what the drones are doing, including the FBI, FAA, Air Force, and the Army. Authorities are looking for a closed box trailer or a large van with antennas that could be used as a command vehicle.

The operators of the drones may not have broken any laws, but the very unusual aviation activity has generated many questions.

PC-12 multimission durango airport
Colorado’s Pilatus PC-12 multimission aircraft, and Durango airport’s Oshkosh crash rescue truck. Photo by Rick Freimuth May 31, 2019.

The PC-12 spent almost five hours Monday night flying at 14,750-feet in an irregular pattern northeast of Denver. According to Fox News in Denver, “The joint operation found no verification of suspicious drones,” said Caley Fisher, a spokesperson for the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.

On January 9 the Colorado Department of Public Safety released a statement about the PC-12 mission. Here is an excerpt:

On Monday, January 6, 2020, the MMA flew for 4.8 hours in northeast Colorado, communicating with law enforcement vehicles on the ground.

As calls came in reporting potential suspicious drone activity, the MMA was prepared to identify which ground resource was closest to the sighting in order to deploy that vehicle in search of more information. The aircraft typically flies 10,000 feet above ground level (AGL), well above drone operations.

The MMA has the capability to detect heat signatures; it did not detect any suspicious heat signatures or drones related to the drone reportings during its flight. During the flight of the MMA, every report of a suspicious drone was investigated and was resolved, and none was substantiated.

From the Daily Mail, January 9, 2020:

…Meanwhile, another drone sighting was reported near Omaha, Nebraska, on Tuesday night. Television cameras for WOWT-TV spotted the mysterious flying object just outside of Mead, Nebraska.

An unmanned aircraft measuring about four-to-six feet was seen flying overhead. According to the news channel, the drone flew so close to the ground that the sound of the propellers could be heard on camera.

Local officials are baffled as to why anyone would operate a drone over an area that is entirely made up of rural farmland.

‘There’s not much out here to look at, so it kind of makes you wonder, well, if they’re not looking at anything, what are they planning, you know? Or whoever or whatever is going on?’ Saunders County Deputy Kyle Kennenbeck said.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Jim. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

NWCG typing for Unmanned Aerial Systems

erickson air-crane
An Erickson Air-Crane reloads with retardant while fighting the Beaver Fire in northern California, August 12, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The National Wildfire Coordinating Group establishes the standards to describe the capabilities of firefighting aircraft, crews, and equipment. For example, a Very Large Air Tanker  must be able to carry at least 8,000 gallons of water or retardant, while a Type 4 air tanker carries less than 800. This makes it possible to order a resource that fits a specific need.

NWCG standards types aircraft
NWCG standards for types of aircraft, December 13, 2019. NWCG.

(Download the chart above)

The chart above is the latest released by the NWCG. The only significant changes I could detect are the addition of examples of resources and a new category of aircraft, Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS).

With the increasing use of UAS, or drones, the organization felt the need to set up standards for these aircraft that have a wide variety of designs. The new requirements specify endurance, altitude for data collection, and maximum range. Surprisingly the NWCG did not establish a requirement for payload capacity. In the foreseeable future drones will be delivering supplies to firefighters in remote areas. It will be necessary to set up categories for aircraft that can carry 25 pounds, 6,000 pounds, or anything in between.

Helicopter struck by suspected drone over downtown Los Angeles makes precautionary landing

This could happen over a wildfire

Drone Damage ABC7 helicopter
Damage on the ABC7 helicopter’s horizontal stabilizer believed to have been caused by midair collision with a drone. Screenshot from ABC7 video.

Wednesday night a news helicopter from ABC7 flying over Los Angeles was struck by what the crew believes was a drone. Not sure exactly what had been hit, they executed a precautionary landing to look for damage, and found a hole in the horizontal stabilizer.

If it had hit the windshield or a rotor blade the event could have had a very different outcome.

Drones are sometimes illegally flown over active wildfires, which requires all aerial fire suppression to be halted until the air can be declared safe again.

This is the FAA’s position on flying drones over fires (from 2018):

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is warning drone operators to avoid unauthorized flights near wildfires or face civil penalties totaling more than $20,000.

“If you fly your drone anywhere near a wildfire, you could get someone killed,” the FAA warned earlier this week. Unauthorized drone flights not only constitute a collision hazard for fire fighting aircraft but also can distract pilots of firefighting aircraft, the FAA said.

“If you own a drone, do not fly near or over a wildfire,” said FAA Acting Administrator Dan Elwell. “It’s against the law, and firefighting aircraft could be grounded, disrupting time-critical fire fighting efforts. Your hobby is not worth another person’s life.”

Intrusions by unauthorized drones into fire traffic control areas have repeatedly forced the suspension of aerial firefighting operations (“Fire Traffic Control,” ASW, 7-8/16), and reports from wildland fire agencies indicate the extent of the disruptions.

For example, the FAA cited several such reports: “Drone spotted by pilot at eye level during [helicopter] bucket work.” “[S]potted a drone over fire. All helicopter operations shut down.” “UAS [unmanned aircraft system] intrusion into TFR (temporary flight restriction). Helicopters disengaged from fire.”

NWCG standards for unmanned aircraft operations

NWCG unmanned aircraft standards

Early this year the National Wildfire Coordinating Group published their standards for operating unmanned aircraft on fires.

Here is how they describe the 24-page document:

The “NWCG Standards for Fire Unmanned Aircraft Systems Operations” standardizes the processes and procedures for interagency use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), including pilot inspections and approvals. In support of fire management goals and objectives, the aviation community references these standards to utilize UAS in a safe, effective, and efficient manner. These standards further serve as a risk assessment for fire UAS operations and meet federal requirements for aviation safety and operational planning pertaining to recurring aviation missions. Agency level policy and guidance is provided through established federal or state plans and processes.

If you have not seen it, you can download a copy.

Former Tesla engineer developing drone with larger payload capacity that could be used on fires

Joshua Resnick Tesla Parallel Flight Technologies
Joshua Resnick was the lead electrical engineer who helped design the Tesla all-electric battery-powered semi-trailer truck. Parallel Flight Technologies photo.

The lead electrical engineer that helped design the Tesla all-electric battery-powered semi-trailer truck is one of the three people that have created a company that is developing an unmanned aircraft system, or drone, that could be used on fires, as well as other functions. Joshua Resnick, the CEO of a new company, Parallel Flight Technologies, said he worked on the Tesla semi project from the time it was first drawn up on a napkin through its introduction to the public in 2017.

Parallel Flight Technologies is building a drone with a much longer endurance and a larger payload capacity than those currently being used on wildfires. Most drones can only stay aloft for 20 to 30 minutes and can carry a few pounds of cargo — less if they are transporting more. Parallel Flight Technologies expects their aircraft to be able to transport 75 of pounds for one hour, or 50 pounds and stay airborne for 2.5 hours.

Parallel Flight Technologies drone
Parallel Flight Technologies photo.

On any aircraft the power to weight ratio is critical. Eliminate weight or add power and it can travel longer and farther. The primary limiting factor in electric-powered aircraft is the weight of the batteries. Until there is a huge leap in battery technology we’ll be unlikely to see them powering aircraft with more than 50 pounds of cargo while staying aloft for more than 15 minutes.

So we need new, or at least, different technology if we hope to see a drone carrying a portable pump, fire hose, and fuel to a remote site on a wildland fire.

“We are building a new drone technology and it can be used for a lot of different things, but wildfire would really be the use case that was the impetus for me to even start on this project,” Mr. Resnick said. “We had a fire not far from our home in Santa Cruz, California in 2017 either right before or right after the Santa Rosa Fire, and it was after that that I started looking into the different ways that unmanned systems could be used in a wildfire effort. That’s when I started understanding that using unmanned systems to resupply firefighters could be very useful especially when manned aircraft could not fly due to smoke inversions or nighttime.”

Parallel Flight Technologies drone
Parallel Flight Technologies photo.

Hybrid systems, using a gas engine to drive a generator which powered electric motors to spin the propellers, have been tried before, but it was not much more than strapping a generator to a drone which added too much mass and weight to be practical. Also, the many power conversion steps led to a loss of efficiency.

“We have developed a parallel hybrid drone,” Mr. Resnick said, “where the propellers are powered by a combination of gas and electric. The electric motors provide the responsiveness so the aircraft can maneuver and the gas supplies the duration and the high power to weight ratio.”

The aircraft is powered by four hybrid power modules, each with a gas-electric combination. The 2-cycle gas engines work in combination with the electric motors, which provide very high peak thrust as well as redundancy. Larger aircraft in the pipeline could be powered by other fuels, such as diesel or jet fuel.

In fall of 2018 the company built a proof of concept aircraft, and in August, 2019 successfully demonstrated heavy lift capability and duration with a new prototype aircraft. In 2020 they expect to be ready for joint exercise missions with several agencies interested in the aircraft.

“I want to find ways to integrate this new technology with the existing solution,” Mr. Resnick said. “I don’t see it as a replacement for helicopters, we’re talking about a much smaller payload. I’m seeing, for example, smoke inversions where helicopters are grounded at nighttime or early dawn before manned aircraft are flying, to be able to operate our drones to do some of this work, while finding ways to deconflict the airspace between drones and manned aircraft.”

I noticed that in photos of the prototype the props appear to be made of wood. When I asked Mr. Resnick if that really was the case, he yes, the props on the prototype are wood due to the cost. If a prop was damaged during testing, they would be out about $100. If made of carbon fiber, such as might be used on the production version, the cost would be about ten times higher.

The U.S. Department of the Interior has leaped into the use of drones in the last few years and currently has over 800 unmanned aircraft. In 2018 they flew over 10,000 drone missions. Parallel Flight Technologies is consulting with personnel in the DOI who have experience in establishing and operating a drone program.

The DOI was recently in the news when their entire drone fleet was grounded except for those needed for firefighting and other emergency services. It turns out that all of the DOI drones are either entirely made by a Chinese company, DJI, or have chips or other parts that are manufactured in China. The Wall Street Journal reported that “the Department of Homeland Security was concerned about drones’ capacity to observe and transmit prohibited infrastructure surveillance and conduct cyberattacks.” Mr. Resnick said the Parallel Flight Technologies drones will be American made and will conform to security specifications required by the DOI and Department of Homeland Security.

Parallel Flight Technologies drone
Parallel Flight Technologies photo.

Mr. Resnick said they are working closely with Drone Amplified who they hope can build a larger drone-mounted plastic sphere dispenser (PSD) system for Parallel Flight Technologies’ upsized drones so that they can be used to ignite burnouts or prescribed fires. Drone Amplified recently introduced a PSD, Ignis 2.0, that can hold 400 to 450 spheres that ignite 30 to 45 seconds after being released from the drone. Their previous system, Ignis 1.0, carried 150 spheres.

Parallel Flight Technologies is raising funds through an equity crowd funding effort which is open to the public for anyone to invest in the company.

Parallel plans on selling a small number of initial aircraft in late 2020 to its first customers before full production begins in 2021.

DOI grounds their entire fleet of drones

More than 800 drones will be parked except when used on fires

Matrisse Drone Springs Fire aerial ignition
Technicians attend to a Matrisse 600 drone which in August, 2019 was being used for aerial ignition on the Springs Fire on the Inyo National Forest in California. Photo: incident management team.

The Department of the Interior (DOI) has grounded its entire fleet of more than 800 drones due to concerns about Chinese spying and cyber security. All of the drones have some components manufactured in China and 121 were made by the Chinese company DJI, one of the largest drone companies in the world.

Drones used for firefighting and other emergency services may continue to be used by the DOI.

This was first reported by the Wall Street Journal. Below are excerpts from an article at CNET:

…The fleet will remain grounded until a full review is completed by Secretary David Bernhardt, the department said Thursday. However, drones being used for emergency rescues and disasters will remain in flight.

The move, earlier reported by The Wall Street Journal, highlights US-Chinese trade tensions, which have escalated since the blacklisting of Chinese tech giant Huawei by the US government in May. The DOI’s decision also follows a May warning from the Department of Homeland Security about data security issues involving the use of Chinese-made drones, particularly those made by DJI. DHS said it was concerned about drones’ capacity to observe and transmit prohibited infrastructure surveillance and conduct cyberattacks…

In the last few years small drones have been increasingly common in the skies over fires led by an aggressive adoption of the concept by the DOI. Incident Commanders have used them for enhancing situational awareness, looking for spot fires, mapping perimeters, search and rescue, and as an aerial ignition platform for conducting burnouts and prescribed fires.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Rick. Typos or errors, report them HERE.