Drones for Good: The DOI Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program
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Drones for Good: The DOI Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program

August 24, 2019

Good afternoon. Welcome to this month’s Interior Museum Lunchtime Lecture Series. My name is Diana Warring, I’m the director
of the Department of the Interior Museum here in the Interior Building and it’s
my pleasure to welcome you today. This is part of an ongoing monthly lecture series
that we host typically on the first Wednesday of each month, highlighting the
various bureaus of our department and their projects both domestically
and internationally. It’s my pleasure to introduce Mark Bathrick today. He’s
been the Director of the Office of Aviation Services or OAS since 2005.
Prior to joining DOI, Mr. Bathrick completed a distinguished career with
the United States Navy, retiring as a Captain. A decorated naval aviator and
test pilot, Mr. Bathrick logged over 3,700 flight hours and more than 800 arrested
landings aboard 10 different aircraft carriers during numerous overseas
deployments. A graduate of the prestigious Navy Fighter
Weapons School, or Topgun, and the British Empire Test Pilot School (ETPS),
he’s flown 40 different types of military and civilian fixed-wing,
rotary-wing, and lighter-than-air aircraft, having qualified as a pilot in
command in 12 different models. Since joining the
Department of the Interior, Mr. Bathrick has led OAS to numerous national-level
and industry recognitions, including the Federal Aviation Program
Gold Standard certification 2007 to 2016, in 2008, the Federal Aviation Program of
the Year in the small category, and ISO 9001-2008 quality certification.
In January 2010, Mr. Bathrick was personally recognized by the Department
of the Interior Honor Award for meritorious service for his development
in innovation aviation policy solutions to critical bureau missions.
Mr. Bathrick holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering from the
United States Naval Academy and an Executive Master of Business
Administration from Boise State University. Please join me in welcoming
Mr. Bathrick. Thank You Diana, and thank you everyone
for coming in today, this is a wonderful opportunity. You can see there I’m from
Boise, Idaho, although I did do three and a half years here in the five-sided day
care center across the river when I was in the Navy. It is my pleasure to be here
to talk to you today about the Drones for Good program, and I appreciate the kind
words about myself, about our organization, the Office of Aviation Services,
but this is really a team story about the Department and its bureaus which you
can see represented there up on the screen. You know a lot of people think
that drones are a new thing but actually drones first began the same year that
this department was born, 1849. So they’ve been around for a while, I can
say I’ve got some experience in drones, thankfully not that amount of experience.
Along my time as a Navy pilot, I also got the opportunity to kind of be a drone.
The fighter squadrons I was a part of all had that tactical reconnaissance
mission and I thought that was cool, we got to go low and fast, but then I found
that people didn’t like their pictures being taken and they expressed their
displeasure by shooting bullets and missiles at you. So I’m really grateful
that we have unmanned aircraft to do some of these missions. Later on in my
career, I got to understand some of the intricacies of cultural and natural
resources and wildland fire when I had command of a very large base that had to
deal with all of those. Office of Aviation Services, we are part of the
Office of the Secretary and we have a few primary roles. First and foremost we
provide the Department with the ability to comply with the laws and regulations
regarding manned and unmanned aircraft, as a federal user of manned and unmanned
aircraft. We also ensure that our bureaus, our 9 bureaus, are able to deploy
annually with safe and mission-ready personnel and
aircraft. Then that happens every year whether it’s a hard fire year
or not. And then we’re also responsible, and this is where we get into the drone work,
conduct DOI aircraft and equipment research and development efforts. Part of
our commitment is to stay small, we’re only 5 percent of the total aviation
budget, and to provide quality work. You heard mentioned about our ISO 9001, now
2015, standard certification and we celebrate that – our tenth year in that – in our 45th
year as an organization. And you see on that slide there about what our
motto is, is “what have you done for the field today?” and we serve the Secretary
but we really serve the bureaus, and we’re there to ensure that they’re able
to do their job. And a little bit about your program – so in business,
what gets measured, gets attention, what gets measured is important, but also
being able to measure relevant things. And the UAS program, that drone program
with Interior, has many relevant measurable things. People like to
talk about that we’re second only to DOD in scope and reputation. Over 12,000
flights, lots of unique FAA granted authorities,
and I like to talk to some of the savings. We’ll see a slide later on in
the video about $50 million saved on 1 particular operation, and across
those 12,000 flights we’ve saved about 1/7 of time – been able to
conduct those missions in 1/7 the time – and about 1/10 the cost as a
rule of thumb. But some of the ones I’m most excited about, particularly given
our landscape that we fly over which is all public land, is the fact we had 12,000
flights and 0 public complaints, and we’ll talk about that. Along the way
we’ve actually become a model for others to follow. We’re starting to pay it
forward to those organizations. We’re currently working with 21 different
federal, state, and municipal governments to help them build similar unmanned
programs. So let’s talk about the why the how and the what.
So why drones for the Department of Interior? I’m often asked that and I kind
of flippantly say we have 500 million reasons to use drones. That’s the amount
of land space, and not the offshore 1.7 billion acres and the outer continental
shelf, but just onshore in the United States that we’re responsible for. We’re the
largest single land steward in the United States, like 1 in every 5
acres. And although we have 70,000 wonderful hardworking employees, that’s
not enough employees to do everything that we need to do. And so we’re able to
perhaps close some of those outcome gaps that we’ve had, and I believe, and we’ll
show some opportunities to actually leapfrog into the future and accelerate
that change of pace. The other thing you have to remember is where we operate,
particularly in the West, very diverse, inhospitable environments. And it’s all
public land, so I would like to do all this work in supporting this management
of the land without disturbing your trip to Yellowstone or your hiking or camping
or however you’re using that. And then lastly we have to remember that our land
that we are stewards of contains some of our most precious monuments, and
certainly quite a bit of our national infrastructure. And so to monitor that
and manage it well, we’re using drones. So how? So how do we do this?
This innovation map I’ve used in the past, successfully, so first we want to
develop a compelling vision. Drones for Good kind of sets that apart. Then we
wanted to have a comprehensive strategy, and we’ll talk about that. We had to go and
really put some meticulous planning to this to ensure that we could succeed in our
execution, and then we have to be disciplined in our execution. Finally, we
have to measure what we do and we have to make sure those measurements are
relevant, and then we incorporate that and we do it all over again.
And so that’s basically how we institute our program. So what do we get out of it?
If you’re familiar with the drone world you’ve heard dull, dirty, dangerous, denied
access as the reasons to have drones. Those are really the conditions where
drones are applicable and fit well, but what do you get out of that? And for us
we developed what we call the 6 S’s. So first we’re a science-based
organization. We make decisions on how to manage the land, what you can do with it
based on science, and that science comes from sensing. And now we’re able to, with
these drones, put some tremendous sensors and tremendous processing capability
into the air. Safety. We do a lot of dangerous work not only in the air but
on the ground, and we have the opportunity with these drones to reduce
the risk to our employees and to the public through that, and we’ll show some
examples. Savings. Our current inventory of fleet drones are about 400.
The acquisition, the training, the maintenance, all of that is so much less
than the manned aircraft world. To put in perspective, we have about 90 manned
aircraft in our fleet and the entire drone fleet, in our government-owned
fleet, is less than some of the single aircraft that I have in the manned fleet.
They cost – just one of those – cost more than 400 that I have in the
unmanned fleet. Service. You can imagine what it takes to schedule, launch
a helicopter to go out and fight a wildfire, and go out and survey animal
species, whatever you might do. Imagine that compared to literally
opening your backpack and pulling out your drone and launching that. So we’re a
lot more responsive, and if you think about what Interior is responsible for a
lot of it happens with us having 49% of the vote. You know the
volcano didn’t erupt, the hurricane didn’t come in, the fire didn’t start
when we wanted it to, it started when it wanted to. The same with animal
migrations. So that service is incredibly important to us. The last 2 at the
bottom you see in kind of the brown, those are kind of really future-looking.
And we know, as a society, it’s a struggle to get kids interested in
science, technology, engineering, math and art, and we know that fewer kids are
getting out into the wild, into the places that I spent a lot of
time as a kid. So for the sustainment of our organization – the Department of the
Interior – getting young people interested in science, technology, engineering, art
math, as well as interested in what we do in the Department of Interior, I
think can happen through the use of drones. And we work a lot with groups,
nonprofit groups that are having these kind of workshops for teachers, and also
with young people. So you know at least we picked something to institute
that didn’t have a whole lot of challenges or controversy. You know
for many, many years, and for some people still today, drones are thought of as
weapons or spy tools. You know we’ve all probably had our personal information
compromised by some company or federal agency, and so there’s all of these
challenges. What we did is not just meet those challenges, but we use those
challenges as the foundation for our program. This is an example, on the front
page and the last page you’ll see our website. If you didn’t get that just
Google DOI UAS and you’ll find us at the top. If you went on our website you would
find probably a week’s worth of reading and videos for you to review, and that’s
intentional because transparency and showing that we are here as
Drones for Good to help manage your lands, is incredibly important to us. We
also want to meet your expectations. Good investment, great return, and we want to
do it with few resources. We actually built our program in OAS with no additional
money and no additional personnel. We used our quality management efficiencies
we gain through ISO certification to actually free up 6 positions, and so we
have a division of 6 people in OAS that actually manage this entire
program for us. You know I call success a team sport. First
thing we did was reach out to those folks like the Department of Defense, who
had been doing this for years, had been there and knew what was available, and
then we reached out to our partners like the FAA academia industry, lots of
industry groups like AUVSI, and tried to copy as much as we could from
them. Why reinvent what’s already been invented and proven? And I’m very happy to
say now the flow is going not only both ways, but out to others who we are
bringing in as new partners. Some of those 21 agencies I mentioned that we’re
actually helping build their programs. I’m actually in DC this week to have
some of those meetings to continue helping those agencies build good
responsible UAS programs. So a little bit more about the how. I
love “try before you buy” and having come from DOD, I knew that small unmanned
aircraft in the Department of Defense were for some of us probably like
cellphones with teenagers – the new one comes out and they already want that one
even though the old one is still pretty capable. So we were able to get from our
partners at DOD 25 million dollars’ worth of sometimes brand-new equipment,
small UAS, for free. And we got enough of them so we didn’t have to maintain them,
and we used those from 2009 to 2015. And what did we do them? We did operational
test and evaluation. We looked at our missions and we saw where they would fit
and we learned a few things. They helped us with our requirements, but we learned
that operating drones that were intended to fly overseas with overseas
frequencies were not so easy to fly in the United States, to get a spectrum
authorization. We also learned that some of the things that we had as
requirements were lesser requirements for DOD. Our resolution requirements are
such that I need to be able to tell if that bird, which looks just like the bird
next to it, has a red beak or a black beak – an actual
survey we did in Alaska because that’s the only way I can tell.
And so our resolution requirements were much greater. That was a great experience,
though, because it helped us develop requirements that then went into our
first acquisitions of fleet aircraft. You can see on the right there,
we now have, I think, the world remaining supply of 3DR Solos, about
400 of those. And we just this year also bought the FireFly Pro VTOL fixed-wing,
and we have one Pulse Vapor we carry a very expensive LiDAR on occasionally. So
that’s our current fleet. One of the others things that was key to our program was
versatility, and I think it was a recognition that although I am an aero
engineer and a pilot, that the vehicle is just the truck. It’s only there to get
that sensor and the associated equipment into the air. And so we actually
qualified 16 different sensors to go on that Solo quadcopter, and you’re talking
a $2,000 quadcopter and we have all these various sensors that we can put on
there. And that’s really a theme of our program. This year we just awarded our
first commercial contract for UAS services. Why did we do that now and not
before? It was all part of our program to kind of crawl, walk, and walk a
little faster, so we’re very excited to have this, we actually had the first use
of the contract this weekend. The Bridger Aerospace Silent Falcon was flying on
the Martin fire in northern Nevada – a 435,000-acre fire that spans 60
miles east to west. And the Silent Falcon was put up on a number of flights, flew
almost 6 hours of total time, providing incident commanders with valuable
information. So across all of our work with the DOD
drones and now with our current drones, we’ve qualified these drones in over 25
different missions. I was asked “what don’t you guys do?” I said,
well I don’t know of a commercial application that’s either being done now
or thought of that we aren’t doing now, or we aren’t going to do in the future.
I think we’ve delivered stuff before Amazon did, so really no
pun intended, the sky’s the limit. And across all of these applications,
we’re seeing a rule of thumb. We’re able to complete these in about 1/7 the time
and about 1/10 the cost. And you know what a rule of thumb is like, it’s like
your rule of thumb to get to work. Sometimes it’s longer, sometimes
you get all the green lights. But this has been consistent throughout this,
and that’s a tremendous increase in efficiency as well as safety because
we’re taking people off the ground with some very dangerous situations, and
substituting something that isn’t going to get hurt.
Part of our transparency, we put together a report for 2017, put it out on the web, it
was really the, what I call the hockey stick year for our program. We at that
time had flown about 9,000 total missions – we flew 5,000 in 2017 across 32
different states, 25 different applications, 6 of our 9 bureaus
flying those. Now we’re up to 12,000 flights and of course that number’s old
because we’re flying today quite a bit. Let’s talk about some of the specific
missions. So last year we were on every single hurricane from Harvey to
Irma and Maria, and really did some great work. Bureaus were down there doing
damage assessments, taking a look at areas that people couldn’t get into to,
see if they were inundated, doing 3D models to determine what the extent of
that damage was, and then helping folks decide what it was going to
take to reconstruct some of these things, doing work cost estimates. I think probably
the most satisfying thing for many of us in this business was the
ability to give folks that live and work down there some idea of what was going
on. What was their neighborhood
like and when could they possibly get in there; what was the extent of the damage.
And this Virgin Islands National Park hurricane report you can find on our
website as well. Great report by National Park Service. Search-and-rescue
is another area that we looked at and we’ve been operating in, 46 flights, 7
incidents last year. It’s much more responsive than having to go get a
helicopter. It also takes our park rangers out
of harm’s way. If someone’s trapped on a cliff ledge,
it’s much easier and safer to send a drone down there and see if this is
still a rescue or recovery, than it is to send the ranger over the side with a
rope or get a helicopter out, and we usually get that drone up there much
faster. In the future we’re looking at improved sensors, and I’ll talk about a
test that we’ve done in Boise to provide emergency equipment, but you see this
is a really fantastic way of using drones for the greater good. Speaking
of that, this is a particular one from this year, many of you may have seen this,
this was down in Hawaii during the continuing volcano emergency. We have had
a team down there since May, and they were on a mission to monitor the lava
flows. What happens is the lava will come out and solidify and it starts to get
these lava pools or lakes, and then they’ll break free. And one of them had
broken free and they told the emergency operation center you need to evacuate
this area quickly, because this was very fast-moving lava. And emergency
responders got out there, they got almost everyone out but there was one
individual that was trapped at their house. They were trying to
get away, they weren’t sure which way to go, they were in the jungle. And so our
folks were on the phone with the emergency operations center, they
had the emergency operations center tell the guy to turn his cell phone flashlight on,
they were able to locate him, and they said follow the drone to safety. The
individual followed the drone out of the jungle, and at the same time our folks were
helping to vector the emergency responders around the roads that had
been closed by the new lava, so that they could find their way to get to this
individual. Happy ending – the emergency responders were able to get to the
individual, get them out of that situation and save their life.
Again I mentioned we’re testing and we have a lot of vision for
future use of drones. This is a particular test we did and what’s kind of
neat about it, we took an AED, took one of our drones, and we took some of our
smokejumper experience, and we took a paracargo parachute we normally use
to drop satphones to smokejumpers after they’re out of the aircraft, and we
rigged that up. And first we did a bench test, we put it on a table and we dropped
the AED, make sure it would leave the drone. Then we took it over to the Boise
Airport, to the fire center where we put it up in the loft, where they string the
parachutes up and we dropped it and it actually opened. And then we went out in
back of our facility in Boise which I call the OAS Test and Training Range
and we actually dropped it, and we actually had a chase drone to watch it
as well. And you can see, successful drop and actually on-target drop, delivering
an AED. So the potential to deliver emergency equipment using this
capability is there and we’re going to continue to pursue it. I want to talk about a mission that is clearly
relevant at this stage of our work and very, very near and dear to a
lot of people’s hearts and that is wildfire. You know it’s part of
the ecosystem. We all know that, it’s a natural part of our world, but increasingly it’s
taking lives and really destroying tons and tons of property at tremendous
cost. In 2017, we had 71,000 wildfire starts, and we lost 9.8 million
acres to fire, and it cost us over $3 billion just for the
suppression. Unfortunately for aviation, we’ve only been able to fight for 8
hours a day for as long as we’ve had aviation. We don’t fight at night, we
don’t fight in reduced visibility, and that’s when 20% of our fires are
starting and being discovered. So for UAS I’ll talk small UAS first, we’re
aggressively employing those – both our fleet and I mentioned our contract. We’re
doing precision boundary mapping, and fire hot spot detection, fire
behavior, and route danger, and escape detection. We have the Solos for a
tactical asset, the Firefly is our divisional level asset, it goes a little
farther, can stay in the air a little bit longer, and then the contract is our
strategic asset. Last year, you can see the numbers there really providing our
managers and our firefighters on the ground with the tremendous opportunity
for increased awareness. I’m going to show you this video, this is from a fire
last August and it’s got some audio. This is actually the individual who is flying
it on that fire. “Our primary mission objective was to provide situational
awareness for the division supervisor during a burnout operation, which was
initiated to protect critical powerline infrastructure from being adversely
impacted, with an additional imminent threat to property and infrastructure
beyond the established control line. A secondary mission objective was to
monitor an active section of the fire, seen here, which was sending airborne
firebrands behind the established control line. If you look
closely in the video you can actually see them getting tossed out by the large
grouping of trees being consumed by the fire. The division supervisor was
concerned that the fire activity was picking up, and had requested that we keep
a close eye on the fire until the activity decreased. We subsequently
increased the duration and timing of our individual flights in order to maximize
our time in air while also yielding to air attack. After spending several minutes in
the air monitoring the fire, I communicated to my visual observer my
intent to return to the takeoff location. Upon final approach to the take-off
location I quickly identified something on my live video feed that wasn’t
supposed to be there: a spot fire, I couldn’t believe it.
My visual observer confirmed what I saw in the video feed and I began to fly
towards the location in order to more accurately determine where the fire was
in relation to our physical location on the ground. Once we had an approximate
location established, my visual observer contacted the division supervisor over the
radio and several resources were dispatched to attempt to contain it
before it got out of control. Given the weather conditions, the spot fire
location in relation to available fuels, and topography of the area, it is very
likely that it could have threatened additional infrastructure and property
if we hadn’t discovered it when we did. Ultimately the spot fire was
extinguished before it became an issue. This video is proof that when you
combine drone technology, a FLIR sensor, and a crew of trained drone operators, you
can positively impact the outcome of a fire incident without spending a
significant amount of money on putting an aircraft in the air and putting
firefighters at an increased risk. I found this video to be analogous to
spending an entire day fishing with not a single bite, but on your last cast,
you hook into the trophy fish everyone’s been trying to catch. It was an amazing
experience and I really feel like my visual observer and I made a significant
impact on the outcome of the operational period that day”. No way I could do
better than that narration, especially about fishing. This video as well as the report
that talks about the $50 million in infrastructure that was saved
as a result of getting that spot fire and extinguishing it, is out
on our website. And you can see the visual conditions there. There’s no way
that you’re going to spot that without the infrared capability in the air. So one of
the challenges with the small unmanned aircraft, and this goes to any
mission but particularly with the fire, is, and I don’t mean this individual, but
it’s us. It’s people and it’s our processes. You know, we are
trained now and we have processes for technology that we had in
the past, not the technology today. And so that’s one of the weak points, and so
when we were developing our program it was important to make sure our people
are trained, make sure our processes were able to take this data, 24 times the
amount of data that you’d normally get, that’s what DOD found when they put
drones into their inventory, and so how do you handle that, and that’s
the weakness in the small unmanned aircraft. I was in a
presentation once it said 98% of all the drone data that’s been collected has not
been fully analyzed. So I want to talk about a game-changing different kind of
drone, and this is the Optionally Piloted Aircraft. This is an aircraft that
started its life as a regular aircraft and was configured so it could fly
either with or without a pilot. One of my squadrons actually had 19 of these QF-4
Phantoms that we could fly with or without pilots, and we use them for
targets but we also use them for some very dangerous flight tests. So as I
mentioned, right now we only fly during about eight hours of the day. We don’t fly at
night to suppress fire, and we don’t fly much of the morning because of the smoke.
Unfortunately those are the times when the winds are down, the temperatures
down, and the relative humidity is up. The fire is at it’s most vulnerable.
So what we’ve been looking at is a capability that was first developed for
DOD to fly supplies for the Marines over the horizon without a pilot. DOD I think
put in about $130 million into that program, and leveraged that for
fighting fires. So we’ve done a couple of demonstrations of that – one in 2014 at
the FAA test site in New York, and one out in Boise. In all these flights you see
there’s a safety pilot in there, but a guy in a tent with a Playstation
controller and a laptop actually flying that aircraft, and using waypoints to
send it to its designated points: to dip, get the water, and then go and
drop it on its target. The idea is we already used these aircraft, we actually,
this is the K-Max, we actually currently contract for those, so they would fly
with manned pilots during the day and then at night they would be quickly
reconfigured, refueled, and they’d fly all night long dropping water. And then in the
morning, continue that same configuration. And then when the smoke finally
lifts and we get all that manned aircraft in the air, we put the pilot back in.
And then when the fire is over we just leave the pilot back in and we can go
from one fire to the other, and we don’t have to jump through a lot of hoops to fly an
unmanned aircraft through the national airspace, which is still being integrated.
So this is a capability we think is a real game-changer, and why we do it is
because it takes a lot of that human out. I mean if you’re dropping water and
retardant on a fire all night long, you don’t have to you know,
you’re taking the place of what’s not there. We haven’t been doing
that, so you don’t have to adjust your processes because you haven’t been
able to do this in the past. And so we’re hopeful that this is a capability that
will be a real game-changer. If you think about it $3 billion and 9.8
million acres, every time you have a 10% improvement on the time and the area
that can contain a fire, that’s lot of money and a
lot of acres – 980,000 acres and $300 million.
I could gold plate all these helicopters for that amount.
So I want to end with talking about one of the challenges we’re still working to meet
and that is data. You can see the resolution of Landsat which was and
probably still is a stalwart remote sensor for Department the Interior. Then
we go on to the manned aircraft down to a meter. And if you start going to a UAS we
start getting into hundreds, if not thousands, times of resolution and
resolution, like you know in some of your photos, is roughly equivalent to file
size, so that file size gets to be pretty high at that point. And so how are we
going to address that? And when you look at what’s predicted for the future of
data in the world, it’s not just our problem, it’s everyone’s problem. And
so we are looking to partner with federal agencies, academia, and our
industry partners to figure out how to do this because if we have that data but
we’re not able to use it, we might as well not have it at all. So in conclusion,
I would just like to thank you for this opportunity and just review that
if you’re part of the Department of the Interior, you should be very proud.
Your UAS program is proven and highly respected, and that’s the way
we’re attempting to keep it on the front edge. It’s very collaborative and we’re
very excited to now be able to give back to those agencies that helped us, as well
as agencies that are looking to do the same thing that we did. And we’re also
very proud of the value that we were able to bring in terms of hard
measurement, and the transparency that has become a hallmark of our program.
That’s very important to us. And we’re looking to be avid and active partners
of this challenge of overcoming the data, to make sure that we can turn that data
into action which is really the end product.
So as I mention again, if you remember nothing else from this, go to
our website because there is a ton of information that I don’t have 10%
of the time to talk about today. Thank you very much.

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