U.S. Department of the Interior awards contract to four companies for small UAS services

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The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) has awarded a “Call When Needed” contract to Bridger Aerospace, Insitu, Pathways2Solutions and Precision Integrated for small UAS services.

Described as a first of its kind for DOI, the contract will allow DOI to obtain “fully contractor-operated and maintained” small UAS that are ready when needed to support a variety of operations, including 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,” says U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke.

Interior’s Office of Aviation Services Director, Mark Bathrick, says, “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.”

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

The aircraft will operate from within the Temporary Flight Restrictions established over most large wildfires, which will allow them to take advantage of DOI’s unique authorities from the FAA to operate beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), which DOI notes is an important capability in the smoky wildfire environment.

Thanks to the aircrafts’ longer endurance, incident commanders will be provided with near real-time access to critical fire boundary, behavior, and hotspot location, which will allow them to make faster, more informed decisions than in the past.

These aircraft—along with the tactical and division level fleet small UAS DOI has already integrated into the wildland fire environment—will enhance firefighter safety through the identification of emerging changes in fire behavior and escape routes.

Additionally, DOI says that it is currently working to bring small UAS to the hazardous aerial ignition mission, which has claimed two contracted helicopters and five lives over the last 13 years.

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.

Being that 20 percent of all wildfires are discovered outside periods of traditional aviation support, DOI believes that 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.