Unmanned aerial systems—more commonly referred to as drones—are becoming an integral technology for many federal agencies, yet perhaps no agency is as far along in drone use as the Interior Department.
The Interior Department is a steward for 500 million acres of federal land across the country and plays a critical role in disaster response, search and rescue and in containing wildfires, mitigating avalanches and monitoring volcanic eruptions. The agency’s growing fleet of drones, including more than 250 government-owned unmanned aircraft, are being used in these capacities and others.
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Nextgov sat down last week with Mark Bathrick, director of the Interior Department’s Office of Aviation Services, to discuss his department’s current use of drones, and how he envisions the department might use them in the future.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Nextgov: Talk a little about your background. You used to fly manned aircraft before you became an expert in unmanned vehicles, right?
Mark Bathrick: I’ve been at Interior a little over 11 years now. Before Interior, I spent 25 years active duty in the Navy, where I was an [F-14] Tomcat pilot and a test pilot. And that’s where I really got involved with drones. As a test pilot, I got involved with some of the conversations about design and acquisition and testing of drones. And then in my second squadron command, I had 19 of the largest drones in the Navy’s fleet at the time.
I’m currently the director of aviation services for the Interior Department, which means I’m responsible for the department’s aviation program. That includes the development, implementation and oversight of policy, compliance with federal regulations and laws, and aviation safety. That is our mission, to ensure our bureaus who perform the missions do it safely and effectively.
Nextgov: How big is your office and what does it do?
Mark Bathrick: Our office is currently 72 people and we manage 100 manned aircraft, mostly light fixed-wing. A majority, probably 90 of 100, are light fixed-wing aircraft, and over half of them are in Alaska. In Alaska, planes are like pickup trucks.
On the unmanned side, we’ve got over 250 unmanned government-owned aircraft. And we have the support of a contracting shop within the department. We develop the technical specifications and then do aircraft inspections and pilot evaluations on anywhere between 400 and 600 contracts that give us access to about 1,200 contracted aircraft. Of 70,000 DOI employees, about 20,000 are involved somehow in aviation. They can be everything from wildlife biologists and law enforcement officers who are flying, to fire crews who are interacting with helicopters and tankers who are coming in.
Nextgov: You were there in the early days of drones. How have they changed technically since then?
Mark Bathrick: Yeah, it’s really interesting. The technology is just like computer technology; it’s really taking off. For me, the drones, although I’m a pilot and aerospace engineer, the drone is the vehicle that simply allows us to elevate this IT node into the third dimension. It provides the third dimension I was privileged to occupy as a pilot to the masses. The technology in the imaging and the data continues to amaze me.
Nextgov: What are some of the most common uses of drones at Interior right now?
Mark Bathrick: Videography. I think folks are really exploring this. We’ve done volumetric studies, habitat studies ... so we’re looking for the amount of material that has eroded away, or the amount of material pushed up on a river bank or taken out of a mine. We’re using them to look at archeological features and be able to do that without putting someone in jeopardy to climb the face of a cliff and without disturbing an ancient geological find.
There are four things that really describe what we get out of drones: science, safety, savings and service. In many cases, drones allow us to go where manned vehicles can’t go, which can help us get better science and manage land better for taxpayers. We’re taking people off hazardous, dangerous jobs on the ground and allowing it to be done in the air.
One example is the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. They typically send people out in the field for days or weeks to do surveys. We were able to do that with a drone in about half a day, and so quicker, and it takes people out of that situation and allows them to do other things.
Nextgov: What are some other examples of drone uses you’re looking at in the future?
Mark Bathrick: Last May, we did a test of a drone in Nebraska working with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and they developed a drone that does aerial ignition. [Aerial ignitions are “prescribed burns,” and one of the ways in which firefighters combat fires, usually by burning off sections of potential fuel for wild fires—such as grass or fields near the fire —in the nighttime hours. Such ignitions are usually done via dispenser from a helicopter flying at approximately 50 feet.]
In the last 11 years, we’ve lost two helicopters and five people have died in that mission, so we tested this drone to do that. And we think this is one area we can completely remove the hazard of having people out there to drop these.
The one that’s probably the farthest along for us is the optionally piloted helicopter. We’ve tested this twice. That capability was developed initially for the Marine Corps in Afghanistan [to supply troops]. The problem we’ve been faced with as long as we’ve been flying to fight fires is that we are only supporting our ground firefighters about eight hours a day [night flights are costly and dangerous, and morning flights can be impossible due to smoky conditions]. If it could drop water or retardant all day and all night long, and deliver supplies to those in the field, that gives us some real capability. Firefighters are always the ones who put out the fires, but this capability could help us better support them from the air.
Nextgov: You’ve also talked about other dangerous missions Interior personnel undertake that drones could make safer.
Mark Bathrick: Probably the most dangerous mission we run is aerial capture, eradication and tagging of animals. It’s a dangerous mission usually done from a helicopter, especially the tagging and capturing part. You’re below 50 feet, you’ve got a guy on a harness with a weapon shooting a dart or net to capture this animal—and the animal is scared to death because of this very noisy, very big helicopter. And it’s never good for anybody.
Imagine if you will, if we could do it where the first thing the animal realizes is just that it’s a little sleepy. We could have a quiet drone that flies out there [and tranquilizes it]. So that’s where we would “arm” the drones, and you could do it maybe with swarm drones that have a net. There are certainly a number of ways you could do that.
Nextgov: Having grown up on a farm with dairy cows and cattle, I remember how dangerous large, scared animals can be. That seems like a win-win.
Mark Bathrick: Exactly. The other use case is avalanche mitigation. About 150 people each year die from avalanches in the United States. How we mitigate them now is we either send people up into the snowpack to plant charges or occasionally we’ll take an Army howitzer and fire into the snowpack.
So one of the things we’re looking at is using drones to more precisely understand where to place that charge by first doing an analysis and imaging. And then, we can use that drone or a different drone to place what would likely be a smaller charge in a precise location without hazarding anyone.
Nextgov: If many of these early use cases take off, will you have enough pilots?
Mark Bathrick: We have about 60 trained operators right now. By the end of 2017, we’ll have nearly 180. And now that [Federal Aviation Administration’s Part] 107 is out, we’ll require all operators are 107-qualified and give them additional training on top of that.
Nextgov: So to sum it up: Interior is already using drones in a multitude of ways, from data collection and surveying to disaster response. And it looks like that is just the beginning, with potential uses including tagging animals, avalanche mitigation and even prescribed burns and 24/7 airborne firefighting. How long are you going to keep doing this?
Mark Bathrick: I’m going to stay here until it stops being fun or until I find something more fun to do.