Drone services contract capitalizes on industry strengths, part of a broader strategy to aggressively combat costly wildfires
Date: May 15, 2018
BOISE, Idaho – As part of a broader strategy to aggressively combat wildfires, the U.S. Department of the Interior has awarded a Call When Needed contract to four U.S. companies for small-unmanned aircraft systems services. The contract, which is Interior’s first of its kind, will allow the agency to obtain fully contractor-operated and maintained small drones that are ready when needed to support 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,” said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. “This capability is key to implementing our new and aggressive approach to combatting the threat of large wildfires that I outlined in my Wildland Fire Directive.”
Like their Interior small-unmanned aircraft systems fleet counterparts, these aircraft will operate from within the Temporary Flight Restrictions established over most large wildfires. This will enable them to take advantage of Interior’s unique authorities from the Federal Aviation Administration to operate beyond visual line of sight—a critical capability in the smoky wildfire environment. Their longer endurance will provide incident commanders with near real-time access to critical fire boundary, behavior, and hotspot location, enabling them to make faster, more informed decisions than in the past. In conjunction with the tactical and division level fleet small-unmanned aircraft systems Interior has already integrated into the wildland fire environment, these aircraft will enhance firefighter safety through the identification of emerging changes in fire behavior and escape routes.
The collaboration between Interior and our U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service partners on unmanned aerial systems follows a tradition of effectiveness and efficiency where each Department takes the lead on a particular firefighting aircraft type. As an example, the U.S. Forest Service is the recognized lead for the Large Air Tanker and Very Large Air Tanker programs, while Interior leads the Single Engine Air Tanker program for both agencies. Similarly, Interior’s award-winning unmanned aerial systems program has been recognized by Congress as a leader “in piloting and demonstrating the potential for unmanned aerial systems to assist in wildland fire suppression.”
Interior is currently working to bring small unmanned aerial systems to the hazardous aerial ignition mission, which over the last 13 years has resulted in the loss of two contracted helicopters and five lives. 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. Historically, 20 percent of all wildfires are discovered outside periods of traditional aviation support. Interior believes 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.