Bridger Aerospace puts out forest fires under contract with the US Department of Interior. Does that make the firm a provider of an IT solution? It does when Bridger deploys a drone as part of its service.
Drones are more than flying machines. They can carry sensors which can provide data streams that can be integrated with ground-based IT. In Bridger's case, that means operating drones that can provide aerial surveillance and mapping that helps firefighters.
"We did not back into this space," said Kurt Friedman, VP for business administration at Bridger. "We led the way into the space, always with the intent to do so."
Unmanned aircraft were a recent addition to the DOI's contract specifications. Last year, the agency contracted with four firms for UAV services: Bridger Aerospace (Bozeman, MT), Insitu (Bingen, WA), Pathways2Solutions (Nashville, TN) and Precision Integrated (Newberg, OR). The companies operate on a "call when needed" contract. Such a contract does not need to be funded with budgeted dollars. The drones are ordered into service and paid for, Friedman explained.
"When a fire occurs... we look at the best tool for that specific incident and then order the appropriate aircraft," said Mark L Bathrick, director DOI office of aviation services (OAS).
"The first year went very well and we are on-boarding additional aircraft for the 2019 fire season to help meet the predicted increase in demand. We did exercise the option for the vendors we had on contract in 2018 and are adding additional vendors for the 2019 fire season."
What you see is what you get
Bridger brings two types of drones to the firefighting mission. The larger FVR 90 is a fixed-wing drone that can take off vertically with its electric motor, switching to a gas-fed engine to deliver eight to 12 hours of flight time. Bridger attaches to it an electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensor to deliver visual images and a "fire mapper" to provide real-time mapping of the forest fire, Friedman said.
The smaller drone is the Silent Falcon, which can deliver four hours of flight time and uses an electric motor powered by solar cells mounted on top of its wing. This UAV only comes with the EO/IR sensor.
The fun part is integrating the data from the drones with DOI's existing IT infrastructure. "Often times we just provide imagery to the incident command post and it is not ingested into the overall IT infrastructure of DOI," Bathrick said. "However, our video specifications are written so that we can plug full motion video into some of our common operating picture services and provide imagery to a larger group beyond the immediate incident."
DOI will dispatch a UAS manager and a data specialist to work with every drone team. Their job is to make sure the drone's data is fed into existing IT systems, be it DOI, Bureau of Land Management, or the US Forest Service, Friedman noted.
Drones provide an immediate information benefit to the DOI. "UAS (drones) provide near real-time intelligence when operating on a wildfire. The resolution of the imagery they provide is superior to satellite data. Often it takes a long period of time to task a satellite to get imagery of a specific target," Bathrick added.
The view from high up
It's not just the federal government or the military that is active in the drone space. State agencies are also busy implementing drone solutions to solve practical problems. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) found 35 states were already using drones as of last year. Fifteen states are researching use cases while another 20 are using drones daily.
Still, one may find some government agencies preferring to go the in-house route rather than contracting out for drone services. The California Department of Transportation (CALTRANS) already uses drones for construction site monitoring, surveying, bridge inspections and environmental studies, according to a CALTRANS spokesman. Using light detection and ranging (LiDAR) sensor, a drone can provide the data needed to do 3D imaging.
Right now CALTRANS is doing all its data work in-house, but may turn to outside vendors in the future for some projects, the spokesman added. The agency is also working with California State University/Fresno to develop mission requirements and procedures for drone-based photogrammetry.
Contrast this with North Carolina's Department of Transportation, which is turning to outside vendors to deliver aerial solutions. One scheme involved a joint effort with drone provider Matternet, NCDOT and WakeMed Health and Hospitals to use drones to ferry simulated medical samples across WakeMed's sprawling Raleigh Medical Park.
Likewise, NCDOT relied on drones to help support the emergency response following Hurricane Florence. Dronescape, North State Engineering, PrecisionHawk and SM&E were on-call consultants for that effort.
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