Sunday, February 25, 2018

Department of Interior ramping up drone use for firefighting, other roles

A Department of Interior office last year flew nearly 5,000 drone missions in support of firefighting, wildlife-mapping, dam monitoring and other activities by department agencies, up 82 percent from 2016, according to a new report.

Colorado accounted for 391 of those flights by Interior's Office of Aviation Services, the report shows.

The office operates 312 unmanned aircraft. Last year's flights were made by more than 200 certified pilots in 32 states. They included 707 missions on 71 fires, for hotspot detection, improved fire mapping and other functions, according to an Interior Department news release.

"We are always looking for ways to improve safety," Mark Bathrick, director of the Office of Aviation Services, said in the release. "Aviation accidents have been the leading cause of fatalities among field biologists. Increasing the use of ... 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 office started flying missions in 2010, with 208 flights, the news release said.

Its drone use last year was highest in Oregon, where it conducted 734 flights, most of those involving the Bureau of Land Management. Nationally, the BLM accounted for 2,774 flights, followed by the U.S. Geological Survey, with 1,084. Other flights involved the Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Reclamation, and Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.

Nationwide, 1,939 of the flights involved training and proficiency, followed by 1,516 for mapping. Some other uses included landscape monitoring, wildlife surveys, law enforcement and search and rescue.

In Colorado, 224 of the flights were for training and proficiency purposes, with mapping (82) and landscape monitoring (58) being the next most-common uses. None of the flights involved firefighting in the state. The U.S. Geological Survey accounted for 266 of the flights, followed by the Bureau of Reclamation (77) and BLM (44).

BLM spokesman David Boyd said some of the unmanned aircraft work the BLM did in Colorado last year included riparian surveys, pipeline rehabilitation monitoring, and surveying of petroglyphs in areas where they can be hard to see from the ground. He said the aircraft also are used by the BLM for photography and video work.

"BLM Colorado is building its program for using unmanned aircraft systems on fires. It does involve advanced training," Boyd said.

Colorado's Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting, based at the Rifle Garfield County Airport, is studying drone use in firefighting, search and rescue and other applications after legislation was passed requiring it to do so.

This spring, the Interior program plans to begin field-testing a new class of drones for use in fire suppression and fuels management. The drones could help firefighters with prescribed fires and with fire suppression efforts, especially when traditional aircraft can't fly due to smoke, Interior says. Drones also can provide around-the-clock air support on fires.

Original article can be found here ➤

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