Government representatives discuss impact of UAS during AUVSI’s Hill Day Luncheon



During AUVSI’s Hill Day luncheon on Sept. 12, Mark Bathrick of the U.S. Dept. of Interior (DOI) and Marke “Hoot” Gibson of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) spoke about how their respective departments are using UAS for “mission-critical operations,” and also spoke about some of the latest policy developments to integrate the technology into the country’s airspace.

The discussion was led by AUVSI President & CEO, Brian Wynne.

For Bathrick, attending his first Hill Day, the reasoning for the DOI’s use of unmanned technology was quite simple from the start.

“We got 500 million reasons why we thought drones were good for us,” Bathrick said in regards to the Interior being the largest single land steward in the United States, as it manages 500 million acres of surface land.

With so much land to manage, UAS — of which the DOI has 245 — have a number of different use cases, from putting out wildfires to preserving land that is frequently visited throughout the year, as well as critical infrastructure that the DOI manages.

Bathrick said UAS have allowed the DOI to “close a lot of gaps” in outcomes, in terms of surveying, mapping, and other functions, and ultimately, obtain a plethora of useful data in the process.

“It’s all about the data,” Bathrick said.

Endless benefits

UAS have provided a range of benefits for the DOI. For one, they allow sensors to get into the air cheaply, and with experts operating the technology, UAS create safer operations because they take people out of harm’s way when working in difficult conditions or across difficult terrain.

UAS have also been financially beneficial for the DOI, as Bathrick pointed to the savings that can be found in the cost of acquisitions, operations, and training. The cost of the actual UAS themselves is also compelling, as the DOI’s entire small UAS fleet costs less than some of the single manned aircraft that it has in its fleet.

Finally, UAS allow the DOI to be more responsive when it comes to service, because factors such as weather patterns or the migration of animals “occur on their own time.” Having to get a contract for a helicopter or fixed winged aircraft can take some time, but UAS can be launched in a much shorter amount of time.

The DOI started flying UAS in 2009, and has completed more than two dozen mission types since its first mission back in 2010 for one of the nine bureaus it serves. Some of those mission types include search and rescue, carrying cargo, and surveying of all types, whether it be animal, vegetable or mineral.

The expansive experience that the DOI has gained over its time operating UAS has led to a few rules of thumb, according to Bathrick. While not universal, Bathrick said that he has found that generally, the DOI can complete some of its traditional missions in one-seventh the amount of time, and at one-tenth the cost using UAS.

Fighting wildfires using UAS

For the DOI, UAS can have a major impact on the west coast with helping to fight fires. There are upwards of 75,000 wildfire starts every year, and the 2 percent of wildfires that aren’t contained within the first 24-hour operational period make up 90 percent of the suppression budget, which is about $1.5 billion a year.

Since the DOI started working on fires from the air in 1930, it only spends about eight hours a day in fighting those fires from the air, and supporting the ground firefighters who put out the fire. They don’t fight fire at night for a variety of reasons, and they don’t usually fly in the early morning either because of smoke.

Small UAS with sensors can be used to fill that 16-hour gap that those fires are going untreated, according to Bathrick, while also supporting those firefighters who go unsupported for two-thirds of the day.

Fighting fires at night and early morning has its benefits. Since temperatures are down, along with wind, a fire is at its most vulnerable.

Bathrick added that larger unmanned aircraft, such as those that started as manned aircraft or optionally piloted helicopters, can be used to fill the gap as well. The DOI typically operates in a temporary flight restriction (TFR) environment, and the FAA has granted them permission to fly beyond visual line of sight as long as they are controlling the airspace.

Bathrick said that these aircraft need to be operated manned during the day, and unmanned during the night, to triple the amount of time that water retardant is being dropped on a fire.

If UAS can be used to fly during times where manned aircraft don’t, even a small reduction in the time to contain fires can have a massive cost benefit and save swaths of land in the process.

Hurricane response

The DOI has also helped with the response to Hurricane Harvey, and is preparing to help with the response to Hurricane Irma as well.

Several entities across the United States have provided their technology to the hurricane response recovery efforts over the past few weeks, thanks in large part to the work of the FAA in regards to getting UAS into the air quickly and efficiently.  

The FAA has received a lot of credit for its quick action, but Marke “Hoot” Gibson said the agency is still learning how to accept positive reinforcement.

“Somebody asked me earlier on, ‘what’s the hardest thing at the FAA?’ I said, ‘learning to accept praise,” Gibson said to laughs in the room.

With well over 100 authorizations issued for UAS operations by the FAA in response to Hurricane Harvey, Gibson said that he feels that this time period over the last few weeks will go a long way in changing the perception of the technology in the public’s eye.