The United States Department of Interior (DOI) released DOI 2017 Drone Mission Report which summarizes flights made by more than 200 certified pilots in 32 states nationwide. In 2017, DOI's fleet of 312 drones flew 4,976 flights that supported everything from fighting wildfires to monitoring dams and mapping wildlife.
Drone flights to support natural resource management across DOI, including support to firefighters suppressing wildfires, increased 82 percent from 2016 to 2017. The report breaks down the flights by agency, geographic region, and non-wildfire vs. wildfire purpose. Of the 4, 976 total flights: 4,269 (86%) were non-fire related flights, the remaining 707 (14%) were for fire management efforts. Non-fire flight purposes include: landscape monitoring, law enforcement, maintenance and inspection, mapping, recon, search and rescue, training and proficiency, and wildlife survey.
“Interior is committed to preventing the spread of catastrophic wildfires through smarter and more aggressive practices and tactics,” said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. “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.”
The program started flying drone missions in 2010 with 208 flights. The drones are equipped with video cameras, infrared heat sensors, and other equipment that 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, will join the fleet in early 2018.
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,” said Bathrick. “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 next phase 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. The new drones could help firefighters with prescribed fires and with suppressing operations, especially during times when traditional firefighting aircraft can’t fly due to smoky conditions.
Many sectors and industries are benefiting greatly from drone applications. Unmanned aircraft can accomplish missions faster and cheaper than traditional aviation. They also provide more safety by maneuvering effortlessly in areas and conditions that would be dangerous to humans.