U.S. Department of the Interior adding up to 50 VTOL fixed wing UAS to its fleet

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The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) has announced that it will soon have the use of up to 50 Vertical Take Off and Landing (VTOL) fixed wing UAS.

The new UAS are a result of an extended process to develop mission performance requirements and select the most useful type of aircraft to meet the needs. Andover, New Hampshire-based startup company Birdseyeview Aerobotics was awarded a contract to produce and train on the new UAS.

​The new UAS weigh less than 10 pounds and are capable of carrying a variety of modular sensors. They have a service ceiling of 12,000 feet, and are operable in winds up to 25 knots.

The UAS are designed to take off and land vertically in confined spaces, and they can also be quickly launched from spaces with a limited area, such as a boat.

“These new fixed-wing aircraft are another weapon in our arsenal as we remain committed to preventing the spread of catastrophic wildfires,” says U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke.

“The UAS program continues to leverage technology to fight fires in safer and more efficient ways to ensure we are protecting the public, local communities and the men and women on the fire line.”

The extended range of the UAS enhances safety and capabilities where DOI already has beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) authority within Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFR), such as those established over large wildfires.

“Last year, thick smoke over some wildfires grounded manned aircraft for days, with only our UAS able to fly during these periods,” comments DOI’s Office of Wildland Fire Director, Jeff Rupert.

“This expanded capability lets us continue our wildland firefighting operations in conditions that would stop manned aircraft, and provide greater support to our firefighters.”

While the new UAS will be used to fight wildfires, DOI believes that its new aircraft have the potential to support its emergency response responsibilities beyond wildfires, being that the aircraft are easily customizable for the types of fieldwork and emergency response operations performed. With this in mind, DOI expects to use the new UAS across its mission portfolio to supplement current UAS capabilities.

DOI says that it will “continue to maintain security and privacy requirements for encrypted control and payload links, as well as the ability to control whether any flight telemetry/mission data is shared.”

“With stewardship responsibilities for nearly one in every five acres in the United States, DOI often finds itself working with other federal, state, and local authorities in responding to natural disasters,” says DOI’s Office of Emergency Management Director, Lisa Branum.

“UAS have proven very useful in emergency management situations, aiding enhanced responsiveness, better data, and public transparency.”

​DOI is expecting at least a 50% increase in UAS flights this year, partly thanks to the addition of this new fleet capability, and also because of the expected award of a commercial UAS services contract later this Spring.