#031 – The U.S. Department of the Interior: 500 Million Acres & 1,200 Aircraft (Drones Included) with Mark Bathrick

In Podcast by Ian Smith


With over 500 million acres of land under their management, the Department of the Interior (DOI) is the largest single landowner in the United States. The DOI maintains this land for U.S. citizens and in order to keep eyes on it, have 1,200+ aircraft in their fleet—drones included. Mark Bathrick, an ex-Navy TOPGUN fighter and test pilot, is the Director of Aviation (OAS) for the DOI and joins Ian to discuss how an organization of 70,000 employees make use of drones and how aviation plays such a critical role in their success. From fighting forest fires and monitoring wildlife, to maintaining the Statue of Liberty and giving us the 4 key competencies that drone companies need to master for success, Mark’s experience provides a wealth of wisdom for anyone who uses drones commercially.

Learn more about Mark Bathrick and his fascinating career by clicking here.


Further analysis of this episode:

At the 2016 Commercial UAV Expo, Mark Bathrick, Director of Aviation Services at the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), delivered a keynote address entitled, “Four Must-Have Competencies for Commercial UAV Success”. The presentation showcased his insights and experiences when it comes to drone adoption, and it’s an especially powerful perspective since that’s coming from a person who has become a recognized leader in the domestic use and integration of UAS for a department that manages over 500 million acres of public land across the United States.

On episode #31 of the Commercial Drones FM podcast, entitled The U.S. Department of the Interior: 500 Million Acres & 1,200 Aircraft (Drones Included) with Mark Bathrick, host Ian Smith sat down with Mark to explore how an organization of 70,000 employees make use of drones and how aviation is a big part of what they’re doing in the present and will be doing in the future. I connected with Ian to capture some further thoughts around those four competencies, how large organizations will soon be able to leverage drone technology and plenty more.

Read through the additional insights Ian provided before or after listening to the podcast. You can also listen to the episode on iTunes or Google Play. 

Jeremiah Karpowicz: Hearing Mark talk through how many different tasks and responsibilities the DOI has provides a hint of the scope of that department. Lots of people in the drone industry mention how many different opportunities will arise for users once the technology becomes more ubiquitous, but huge organizations with various duties like the DOI will be in an especially powerful position to really explore and leverage those sorts of new opportunities, don’t you think?

Ian Smith: First off, I was really shocked to learn much of the knowledge bombs that Mark dropped on that episode. The DOI being the largest landowner in the U.S. is absolutely going to be a huge challenge for them, but also a potential boon in pushing forward new opportunities with drones. The amount of work they have ahead for them is tremendous, of course—but an organization of tens of thousands of employees, with 50% being involved in aviation already definitely has a great shot to get the job done correctly.

Out of the four must-have competencies to achieve commercial UAV success (aviation, privacy, security and culture) that Mark mentioned, which have you seen people struggle most with? 

Oh, this is a great question. It’s hard to pick just one. I have to go with “aviation” first and “culture” being a close second. I could debate this all day but to me, drones are inherently aviation. I’m not going to define what aviation means but the fact they they literally fly and operate within the NAS (National Airspace System) that the FAA has complete authority over, places them firmly in the aviation realm. Once you pilot a drone, you become an aviator. Furthermore, a Part 107 certificate from the FAA is literally a pilot certificate so you can legitimately call yourself a pilot when you get one of those. How many childhood dreams is that going to help make come true?

“Culture” has to come after “aviation” because you must embody some of the core, cultural tenants of aviation in order to have commercial drone success. You’ve got to practice it, preach it, and live it. Culture has a lot to do with safety and cognizance. An organization who begins to adopt drones into their business must fully realize the risks they are taking when operating aircraft. Mark is absolutely dead-on with these competencies.

I thought it was great to hear Mark say his department isn’t looking at drones to replace their manned air missions, but instead to use the technology in situations where manned solutions were ill-suited or too expensive. When it comes down to it, how many professionals do you think are trying to use drones to wholly replace what they had been doing with a plane or helicopter?

This question seems to come up from time to time, in various forms. I think if we start with the organizations who are completely new to aviation, they are trying to essentially create a flight department from scratch. That’s pretty tough to do and it really pigeonholes you into very specific ways of operating. In these cases, they’re not really replacing places or helicopters—they’re actually trying to make (or believe that) a small drone do everything. This is not ideal. However, when approached thoughtfully, it makes a ton of sense when taking regulations and hardware capabilities into account.

For those organizations who already have flight departments or have been operating manned aircraft, I think the approach is quite different. The “culture” of aviation has already permeated the group and this usually leads to a much more compartmentalized approach, treating drones very much like their manned counterparts.

In either of these scenarios, there’s no right or wrong answer. It’s intriguing to see both approaches and to see each one succeed, but also fail. It all comes down to determining what the best tool for the job is.

The “If You Fly, We Can’t” campaign is something we’ve covered, and it’s rather amazing to think about the risk operators create for safety professionals when they take a drone into the air near something like a wildfire. Do you think it’s significant that this campaign came out of the Forest Service rather than the FAA or someone from an organization within the drone industry?

It seems like every question comes back to one of Mark’s four competencies.

A successful drone company will embody a self-aware culture, that embraces aviation and security. Those organizations—and pretty much any organization that’s not completely clueless—will have no trouble with this. I think that since the U.S. Forest Service created this campaign means that it was a huge problem. It really needs no justification.

I think it would have been incredible if it would’ve come out of an organization already in the drone industry. Most of these incidents are likely occurring with individuals who likely just haven’t gotten the memo behind the sticks—hobbyists and recreational flyers. Unfortunately, nobody knows the U.S. Forest Service like the U.S. Forest Service does. I completely support “If You Fly, We Can’t”.

The fact that the DOI plans to use qualified drone service providers is great ews, but as Mark mentioned, that means organizations like his will expect those services providers to be using the latest and greatest technology. Will that force service providers into an “arms race” to make sure they have the newest tech and tools? Or will that be an irrelevant issue as service providers build trust with clients and create trustworthy reputations?

This is hard to predict but I think that the trust and reputation will almost always beat out the latest and greatest technology. One thing to be clear on—at least with government agencies like the DOI—is that there is a type of tender process that they release to the public once they need hardware/software/services. Organizations have to apply and complete RFPs in order to even be considered. This means that usually, most of the technological (hardware and software) requirements are well-defined and clearly stated. A wise, professional drone operator will already have (or be able to acquire) the best tools for the job.

I think the arms race has already begun and will continue to exacerbate in regards to small, battery-powered drones. As regulations progress and heavier, more powerful machines are legally allowed to be operated commercially, we may see reputation playing more of a role. (Think turbine or piston-engine, 200-pound behemoths with large cargo capacity and mega endurance.)

via Commercial UAV News


#031 – The U.S. Department of the Interior’s 500 Million Acres & Its 1,200 Aircraft Fleet (Drones Included) with Mark Bathrick

[00:00:03] [Introduction] Welcome to Commercial Drones.FM, the podcast that explores the commercial drone industry, the people who power it and the concepts that drive it. I’m your host Ian Smith.

[00:00:15] IAN SMITH: Hey everybody and welcome to commercial drones FM. Today I’m sitting in Las Vegas Nevada at the Commercial UAV Expo and I’m with Mark Bathrick who is the director of the Office of Aviation Services at the Department of the interior of the United States. So welcome to the show Mark thank you so much.

[00:00:35] MARK BATHRICK: Thank you. I’m really glad to be here.

[00:00:38] IAN: Excellent. Cool. It’s a pleasure to have you. The first question is I guess maybe you can tell us a little bit about your background and we’ll get into the department of the interior later. But yeah how did you get into drones?

[00:00:52] MARK: I’m going to show my age here but I’ve been in drones for over 25 years. I started out as a Navy fighter pilot and Navy test pilot is where I got involved in drones and I was involved in concept development and testing acquisition. And actually the management of some operational test drones that we had que for phantoms which were the largest drones in the Navy fleet at the time we use them for targets as well as for some scientific study we did.

[00:01:24] IAN: And when you say targets. What do you mean like for target practice basically?

[00:01:27] MARK: Well we use those drone aircrafts in the unmanned configuration of course to test our missiles against the full scale target. So we use them is that we also use them in an unmanned configuration to test out equipment that was a little bit hazardous and we didn’t want to subject a pilot to that risks or would fly it an unmanned configuration.

[00:01:47] IAN: Gotcha OK so heavy aviation background.

[00:01:49] MARK: Heavy aviation background.

[00:01:51] IAN: Nice and what kind of aircraft are you piloting whenever in your combat experience.

[00:01:56] MARK: My my primary plane was the F-14 Tomcat.

[00:02:00] IAN: OK.nice.

[00:02:00] MARK: And went to Top Gun and test pilot school and got a squadron on the Carrier Enterprise and then a test squadron out in California and finally my last command before I retired was base commander of one of the Air Engineering stations and Navy head.

[00:02:16] IAN: So you were you taking off and landing from aircraft carriers?

[00:02:19] MARK: Yeah. Day and night.

[00:02:22] IANL That is crazy. I can’t imagine a night landing on an aircraft carrier.

[00:02:25] MARK: It’s a pretty stressful experience.

[00:02:29] IAN: Oh man yeah. Well yes. I mean my piloting experience doesn’t even hold a candle to that. But there was times in the tiny helicopter that I felt pretty stressed out so I can only imagine that. So that well that’s really cool. So extremely qualified for aviation here. And it’s interesting that you’re here at this UAV Expo because some people in the drone industry who are usually you know what they don’t have aviation backgrounds one time some people were some person was saying that drones really don’t have anything to do with aviation and I definitely disagree heavily with that but anyhow. Very very aviation oriented. Obviously because you’re here so you did a keynote mark at the Expo. I think it was this morning?

[00:03:16] MARK: That’s correct Ian.

[00:03:17] IAN: And so what was it about?

[00:03:18] MARK: So interesting your conversation or observation about drones really about aviation or not. I actually agree with whoever mentioned that here and say that primarily they’re not about aviation. It’s really an airborne IT node. It’s a way to get that sensor up in the air. And again that third dimension. However as I mentioned in my keynote today you can’t get away from the fact that it’s subject to the same physics aerodynamics and human performance issues that manned aircraft have struggled with for 113 years now ever since Orville and Wilbur went flying.

[00:03:56] So my talk this morning was the four key competencies that you need to master as a drone company to be successful. And they were aviation of course privacy security and finally culture that ties them all together.

[00:04:11] IAN: Maybe you can tell us a little about those four things actually that be kind of interesting. I actually wasn’t able to make the keynote this morning so I’d love to hear and I’m sure all the listeners out there would love to hear it too.

[00:04:22] MARK: Sure. So based on my background in aviation and in drones and in my current job with aviation and drones with the U.S. Department of Interior – done a lot of thinking about you know what makes a company successful in this space and I’ve gone to a lot of these expos and shows and everyone tends to talk about the capabilities the applications and about what their company is doing. What I found was nobody was talking about how to be successful and these four competencies are not new competencies but I think I have not seen them talked about in this combination for this industry.

[00:05:03] So just briefly the aviation component you know a lot of these companies are tech companies and they dont have a lot of experience in aviation. And so as I say they haven’t been to as many funerals as I’ve been to and as many crash sites so you know it’s important that they understand that these things are going to be in the air and they need to be operated responsibly and you know we share the airspace with other aircraft and we have responsibility the people that live beneath that air space and we’re going to be operating in a low altitude structure with the small drones 400 feet so our ability to do something to prevent an accident when something happens is is diminished because of the lower altitude. I mentioned in my piece they there’s currently over five hundred eighty five thousand drones registered in the United States which exceeds a number of manned aircraft by 90 percent. So there’s a lot of them out there too. So so aviation needs to be you know an element that you have mastery of. You need to be very competent there.

[00:06:13] The next item is privacy. Privacy is one of those issues that in our society and in certainly in our government seems to have no parent but it has a lot of very interested relatives who’d like to make you know privacy policies and tell you what to do. And you know I tell people if you you want to understand what people feel like and why they’re concerned about drones. Think about driving down the highway. You have cars passing you you’re passing cars. You don’t think anything of it. But as soon as a black and white pulls up behind you or passes you if you’re like me you’re checking your speed you’re trying to remember if you got your car reregistered and inspected. So that’s the kind of feeling I believe that the American people have when they see a drone.

[00:06:59] Because when they see your helicopter flying through the air they pretty much know that it’s taking someone or something from point A to B and they see that drone in the air and they know there’s no package onboard yet. And so they’re thinking it must be looking at them. So I think that privacy piece is really important and because there is no clear owner of this issue we see the States getting involved we see local governments getting involved. And we tried it in my program to be very very proactive and sensitive to that.

[00:07:31] The third piece is security. There’s data security, there’s control security you know when you’re flying in your helicopter you didn’t have to worry about electromagnetic interference or the fact that you may have lost comms because you knew what to do in that case. You know today with two way communication between small drones and operators you can lose control and you can lose control because of distance because electromagnetic interference. You could also be hacked. Same thing with your payload. And so that security is an issue. Not to mention the security the physical security of those small drones. I’m sure you never worried about your helicopter going home with somebody and you know. But if you have small drones in your company maybe you want to please take them home to film Johnny’s birthday party here take it fishing with him or something. So now it’s a liability for your company. So that’s the third one.

[00:08:29] And then finally it’s the culture. It’s bringing it all together. And I used an example of let’s just say you’re a very large online retail company know your customer experience really happens on line. And when that package I ordered gets delivered. Now you’re going to enter the drone space not FedEx not U.P.S. or U.S. Postal Service but you are now responsible for everything that happens between your fulfillment center and my front door. So if I load that package wrong in the center of gravity as often it crashes if that drone is not ready to fly or the battery is not up to speed. So making sure that your corporate culture has shifted from where you are traditionally to now this new space I think is important so those are the four points that I made very nice.

[00:09:19] IAN: Those are very valid points and yet so far the insight has been intense. This is nice. I’m learning a lot already and I love how you broke those things down. I can definitely relate to that. One thing we didn’t touch on is what you just told me basically the rundown So the Department of the Interior some people can refer to as the DOI. But basically you told me that an interesting fact is that you guys are one of the lot. Or the you are the largest landowner in the entire all. You’ll tell me a little bit more but you’re a federal agency and, so what is the Department of the Interior? I think we need to set the stage. Sure.

[00:09:57] MARK: Sure. The Department of Interior back when it was formed in 1843 I think is right. It was kind of joked about as the “Department of everything else.” They took a number of departments and bureaus that they existed and kind of put them together as you mentioned were the largest single landowner in the United States. We are responsible for the management of about $500 million acres of American land. Not to mention 1.7 billion acres in the outer continental shelf. And that’s your land. It’s all public land bureaus that you’re probably more familiar with within the Department of Interior the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, USGS.

[00:10:43] There are nine total bureaus within the department and that that responsibility goes from things like the Statue of Liberty and the National Mall in Washington D.C. to disclose Liberty and National Park Service managed piece of property.

[00:10:59] IAN: So even like the maintenance of the lady liberty herself.

[00:11:03] MARK: Absolutely.

[00:11:04] IAN: OK.

[00:11:04] MARK: So we we manage everything from things in urban infrastructure, all the way out to the west and Alaska and Hawaii and national parks, huge swaths of land in the West. Major dams that supply water and power to the west of the United States. It’s a really diverse portfolio of responsibilities and that’s one of the reasons that we’ve been looking at and we are have been applying drone technology to help us better manage those lands with better science better safety. We think some savings and with more responsive service to the American public.

[00:11:47] IAN: So I’m thinking now that back in the annals of history of the Department of the interior you said it was created 1843-ish? Approximately?

[00:11:56] MARK: Yes.

[00:11:56] IAN: OK. So imagine then so your title as the director of aviation, director of the Office of Aviation Services imagine back then when they first after Orville and Wilbur Wright back in 1902? 1903?

[00:12:11] MARK: 1903.

[00:12:11] IAN: Back in 1983 after the U.S. government started acquiring flying machines. The integration of those into the department of the interior must’ve been a huge boon to its success and so do you see it totally out on a limb here. Do you see any similarities between that and maybe some of this drone technology or do you think it’s not as dramatic as making it seem?

[00:12:42] IAN: Actually think it’s more dramatic than you’re making it seem so. So we have access to about 1200 aircraft most of which we contract for but we have about 200 that are in our government owned aircraft. And these are small fixed wing and some like helicopters and. And you’re right. Having aviation has been a tremendous mission multiplier for us being able to get out there and and do a lot of this work. A lot of this territory there were folks on this landscape it’s not only sensitive but it’s remote and in some severe weather conditions and terrain conditions. So that’s been extraordinarily helpful. What we found and so the amount of our 75,000 DOI employees about 25,000 of them are involved in aviation at this point.

[00:13:36] IAN: Oh wow.

[00:13:38] MARK: We think that with drone technology we’re going to see at least a 50 percent increase the number of people that are going to be involved because what we’re finding is it’s not so much replacing manned aircraft technology. But what we’re doing is we’re applying drone technology where manned aircraft were either ill suited either because of capability or expense or we just didn’t have the capability to find an aircraft to do that. A good example is our first drone mission was surveying sandhill cranes at a refuge in Colorado. Maybe we’re roosting young chicks and all. And they’re trying to get a count to see what the population is.

[00:14:21] IAN: When was this?

[00:14:22] MARK: This was in 2010.

[00:14:24] IAN: Ok cool.

[00:14:25] MARK: So we’ve been flying for a number of years. And what we did was we flew a battery powered fixed wing drone over that flock that was roosting there at dawn at 100 feet and not one of them moved. Now years prior They tried that with small light fixed wing and everybody scattered. And so they had not been doing it from the air so the counts weren’t as accurate and without accurate counts. We are making decisions based on poor science. And so we’re seeing a lot of these missions where we couldn’t use aviation for whatever reason technology cost disruption.

[00:15:08] That drone technology is now going to give us the opportunity to get in there and do it with better science make better decisions. Take some people out of some hazardous situations or reduce the cost because it’s taking us a couple of hours to do it. Took us a couple of weeks and then be able to put these literally on the backs of our employees and with backpacks and let them go out in the field and use them. You know when they want really giving aviation to the masses at this point.

[00:15:38] IAN: So the whole the example with the cranes. I think that’s so it’s just has less of an impact I guess on the environment as well just because they’re not big scary loud rumbling you know large piston engine aircraft that are buzzing overhead. And so I guess that’s one of the other advantages that that you have versus some of the larger I guess fossil fuel powered aircraft because if you did it I wonder if the same effect. What do you think it is? You think it’s a combination of the size? it’s a smaller aircraft and it’s a little quieter. Or do you think if you had an electric powered like Cessna for example do you think the birds would still scatter?

[00:16:20] MARK: It’s a great question. I think it’s a combination that because I think the visual signature is important too. I’ve actually been in the blimp and flown over low over some animals and they scatter not because of the sound but because of this huge shadow that they came over to them and so I think that the drones particularly small drones have that advantage that they can be quieter. And certainly the visual signature is less. And as I mentioned this 500 million acres of land this is your plant and this is public land so Another consideration is we’re doing our job is to try to not impact the people who are out there enjoying their land whether they’re recreating or doing work on that land. And so drones also give us that opportunity as well.

[00:17:07] IAN: Do you have a blimp rating?

[00:17:10] MARK: No I don’t.

[00:17:11] IAN: I was about to be so jealous. You know I’ve always wanted to be a blimp pilot and be able to say I am a blimp pilot.

[00:17:18] MARK: I was at my last job in the Navy I was a commanding officer at a Naval Air Engineering station and Lakehurst, New Jersey. And we had some blimps come in and when they found out it was a test pilot they offered to take me up and so I said actually pilot on well under instruction of course.

[00:17:35] IAN: Wow ok cool. That is so cool. A blimp an aircraft carrier landing. It doesn’t get much cooler than that folks. Seriously. Ok cool. Wow. So you guys recently told me you’re using drones.

[00:17:51] MARK: We are.

[00:17:51] IAN: The Department of the interior is using using drones.

[00:17:54] MARK: We’ve been using drones actually started our program in 2006 and in 2009 we started flying we were developing culture and policy up to that point. Our first operational mission was in 2010 and we’ve flown thousands of hours now and thousands of missions and like I said about 25 or so different applications for drones and we have our sights set on probably a dozen or more additional missions where we think drones will again make it safer and not only for humans but maybe for the animals and be less intrusive than methods we’re using now.

[00:18:37] IAN: Out of those 20 five applications What do you think. What do you think was one of the most or is one of the most just no brainer, so effective that like I can’t believe we weren’t doing this sooner kind of things. Does anything like that pop out at you immediately?

[00:18:53] MARK: Yeah sure. I think the one that pops out the most is one we’ve demonstrated twice and we’re still bringing to full operational capability and that’s the use of a full scale optionally piloted helicopter. To fight fire at night.

[00:19:14] IAN: Wow.

[00:19:14] MARK: So the we don’t fight fire from the night – from the air at night and we don’t fight fire from the air usually in the morning because the smoke is is down in the valleys and it sets up an inversion so you don’t have good visibility.

[00:19:36] IAN: So you guys the Department of Interior also does the firefighting?

[00:19:40] MARK: That’s in that’s in our portfolio. Yes.

[00:19:42] IAN: OK cool.Gotcha.

[00:19:43] MARK: And so what we did is we took some technology that was developed for the Marine Corps. And to fly supplies to forward Marine bases instead of driving them over the roads that were subjected to those IDDs and they flew this helicopter an unmanned configuration. And so we we took that capability and we said hey can you do this instead of carrying supplies carry a water bucket or maybe carry supplies out to our fire area. And that’s been demonstrated twice and we’re we’re still working on you know fielding that technology. But you know we we fight fire from the air and we support our ground firefighters with the men and women who put these fires out and contain them 8 out to 24 hours a day.

[00:20:30] And now at night in the early morning the fire is on its heels because the winds are down. The relative humidity is up. The temperature is down and yet we’re not able to go out there and fight fire. Is it because it’s dangerous. Well it is dangerous to get out there and fight fire at night you know to get qualified to fly. Night vision goggles which I have done before. It takes a lot of training to get there and it takes a lot of proficiency to stay there. And even though the fire seasons continue to get longer and longer there’s still a seasonality to that. And so to get that capability and maintain that capability is is difficult. And even then flying in that smoky You know morning hour is not possible even under goggles. So we’ve demonstrated this with Again this diod technology. And when you look through the infrared you can you can see right through the smoke and you can also see where you’ve dropped the water because the water is colder than the landscape.

[00:21:40] And so now we can measure how effective those drops are really the first time in our history. So we think that it’s a potential game changer. You know the other part of that is a lot of those fires that start end up being some of our larger fires will start in the afternoon. You know right at sunset you know dry lightning storm comes to ignition happens but we can’t get in there.

[00:22:09] IAN: So it has to it has a whole night to burn and grow.

[00:22:12] MARK: To burn and grow. And so now you might be able to you know catch that early. And so you know we’re we’re fighting climate change and the effects of that so the ability to use an unmanned capability or an obsolete piloted capability in this case to do that so we would fly those helicopters during the day with all the rest of the piloted aircraft and then at night we’d switch out from the pilot to the young kids sitting in the tent with his computer and having them fly and he could probably fly three of them. It’s mostly just Mission Planning waypoints and I think we could reduce the time to contain those big wildfires. That certainly goes to reduce loss both human and property loss. And then all the money it’s required to you know repair the landscape when that happens. So that’s one of the big ones.

[00:23:09] But there is a there’s a whole host of things I think they’re just really show promise. Search and rescue is another one. You know we we endanger our employees or park service rangers and going out and looking for folks or rescuing them. And sometimes those rescues turn into recoveries because individual is already you know has died. So now we have the ability to maybe send a drone out there and determine before we put a human in danger. Well this is something we need to take care of quickly or this is now a recovery effort and we can take our time and wait till the weather is is better and do that.

[00:23:50] So now I could go on all sorts of mission applications that I think are just really you know we’re just the beginning of realizing the potential for this to save money, save time and save human life.

[00:24:08] IAN: So one thing I want to emphasize here is of course it’s so. OK. So we have people that are flying their drones during firefighting activities. And obviously that is extremely frowned upon, that is legal you should not ever ever do that because there is a highly coordinated basically assault on this fire that you are interfering with. And if you have an unmanned a small you know just don’t fly your drone. I’ve talked about this to someone else but never someone with so much kind of direct experience with that and yet don’t ever fly your drone to take videos or pictures of a fire. It’s just not worth it and you’re endangering lives and lots of other stuff.

[00:24:53] MARK: You mind if I?

[00:24:53] IAN: Please.

[00:24:53] MARK: So I appreciate you bringing that point up Ian. My feelings are somewhat mixed on – I have some empathy for the drone operators and I’ll explain why and explain what we’ve been doing. You know you and I as pilots we went through a lot of training and it wasn’t just the stick and rudder cycle can collective training. It was an understanding of our place in the national airspace system the privilege we had in flying in that responsibility we had for others flying in it. And for those that lived underneath that air space. If you think about your drone operator I can run down to pick your store and I can buy one and I probably don’t even have to read the directions. The thing will fly itself. And so those pilots those operators have really not gotten that full measure of cultural understanding that you and I got when we were coming up as pilots. And so because of that we started a campaign back in 2015 in conjunction with our partners in the U.S. Forest Service and the FAA kind of a public service campaign. If you fly we can’t.

[00:26:17] So I appreciate you saying don’t put your drone in the air but if we find a drone in the vicinity of a wild and fire area we’re going to put all of our aircraft on the ground because we’re more concerned about our safety and the safety of our aerial firefighters and our firefighters on the ground. We do not want to have a drone aircraft collision and you know have that aircraft crash and you know that would just be unacceptable so we’ll put them on the ground. The unfortunate part of that of course is they’re now not supporting those ground firefighters who are there to protect you and your neighbors and your community from that wildfire. And so that fire could grow it could result in loss of property and loss of life. And so we started this campaign and it was fairly successful. But the other thing we did learn realized is that there are about 75000 fire starts in the United States every year.

[00:27:16] That’s a lot. The great news is only two percent of those ever become big fires 98 percent of them are contained within the first 24 hours. And why that’s important is because because they get contained so quickly we don’t have the need to go to the FDA and go through the process to get a temporary flight restriction put over that area.

[00:27:37] IAN: OK. So you guys have to do that each time?

[00:27:40] MARK: Each time. Because you know we want to be respectful too of of the recreational and commercial operations that are in that airspace and we don’t want to just go willy nilly and close off airspace. So a problem with that is that only the temporary flight restrictions that TRSs and them get plotted. And so this year we did a pilot project prototype with a few companies air map skyward and through air maps association with DJI they participated and we were providing them with the location data for every one of those 75000 starts. And so they would plot that and then DJI would incorporate that into their mission planning software so they would not allow you to fly in that area. And this prototype was to get a better understanding of whether or not that worked and how our data from the government came across and all that and we hope to expand that in 2017 to perhaps include everyone so that it might be like going to the National Weather Service site and you could find out where all the fires are. And so now you would have the situational awareness to know where not to fly so we’re not just wagging our fingers saying don’t fly there we’re telling you where they are so you know where NOT to fly.

[00:28:57] IAN: That makes a lot of sense. OK. That I can’t argue with anything you just said. That’s great. I didn’t know you guys are were so I didn’t know that was you. I mean I think this is a common theme I’m just like always learning something new that the Department of the Interior does in the United States. And so thank you for everything that you guys are doing. I don’t think you guys are you know flying under the radar as it were.

[00:29:24] So you’re also you have a case of those larger firefighting drones. Those are what aircraft are those based off of.

[00:29:36] MARK: Right now it’s based off the K-Max aircraft. That’s what the Marines the dual main rotor. That’s what the Marines used and invested a lot of money into that research and development and where we’re hoping to leverage that. We actually contract for a number of K-Max aircraft today to fly man on fires. As I mentioned I have some history in flying and managing obstinately piloted aircraft. So I think there’s a lot of interesting aspect to that. You know right now in the regulatory environment it’s still difficult to fly in the national airspace you know between fires. So we would fly with in the TFR in the manned and then in the unmanned configuration and we have authorization from the FAA.

[00:30:32] I think we’re the only agency right now that does to fly beyond visual line of sight within this temporary flight restrictions so we can fly small and large oppositely piloted drones beyond visual line of sight which of course in a smoky fire environment would be very important. And then when that fire is contained you know extinguished and want to move to the next fire we pop the pilot back in. We fly the option of the pilot at helicopter to the next fire where it operates during the normal daylight period as a normal manned helicopter. And then at night and then the morning inversion we can continue to operate delivering supplies to our ground firefighters or water or retardant to the fire.

[00:31:18] IAN: So you guys also have a number of small unmanned aerial systems as well. Obviously those aren’t going to be fighting fires any time soon although maybe they could help out with some scouting and things of that nature. But OK so it was besides like some of those wildlife monitoring activities. Are you guys doing anything like you know very popular right now. A lot of photogrammetry. So are you guys doing any photogrammetry like mapping activities for I don’t know monitoring things that are happening? on those 100 like millions and millions of acres of land.

[00:31:52] MARK: Absolutely. And that’s a key area right now. Again we have a responsibility to survey that land to understand what’s happening on that land whether it’s geological or it’s you know an invasive species of vegetation or it’s a species that we’re trying to sustain there in is it having difficulty as well as you know our native animals that are out there judging the health of their populations whether they’re not threatened or if they’re threatened or endangered. Understanding their habitat and changes so that photogram entry is incredibly important.

[00:32:30] We also have you know a number of archaeological and you know geological sites you know we call them very special places that we have to you know monitor and certainly maintain and is a very unobtrusive way of doing it. And one of the videos showing one of the presentations you can see a clift watching you know an old Indian cliff dwelling. We can go in and we can really get a good look at that without having to put someone in jeopardy and maybe disturb that landscape in that environment by having someone climb the rock face.

[00:33:08] IAN: Lets just fly a drone into it.

[00:33:09] MARK: Fly a drone there and do some some great imagery. We can also see what’s happening on the landscape through that photogrammetry and see what what what a flood has done or what the erosion is. So many applications in. You’re right. The fire with the small drones where we’ve used those a number of times and you know certainly spotting and mapping the fires we’ve also identified possible use to help our manned aircraft operate more effectively because that drone looking in the infrared spectrum can see the fire and maybe hotspots of the operator that pilot in that helicopter can’t see. And so we can almost be almost a forward air controller providing them that situational awareness and we’re looking at possibly supporting our firefighters on the ground by being able to tell them where danger is and perhaps were an escape route.

[00:34:11] You know we’ve lost way too many firefighters through through mishaps where there have been burn overs and so we see tremendous opportunities and we’re just kind of scratching the surface at this point and we’ve been doing it for you know a number of years.

[00:34:26] IAN: How big do you think your drone use could get? I guess as the Department of the Interior I mean I don’t know. It’s such a it’s a hard question. But I mean I don’t know if you can begin to humor. Humor me on that.

[00:34:40] MARK: Well I think as I mentioned before we have about 25,000 employees currently involved in aviation. Seventy five thousand or so in that department. I think that number is going to increase by 50 percent. So I think our flying our aviation is going to increase by least 50 percent and in our manned aviation about 69 percent of all our flight hours are supported by contract aviation.

[00:35:09] IAN: OK.

[00:35:10] MARK: I also believe that as part 107 is now out and as we continue to mature as an industry we will see huge growth in that area and unmanned we will be using drone as a service like we use aircraft as a service in interior. So I would see three to five years we’ll be looking at at least 70 percent of our drone hours being supported by contractors rather than government owned aircraft will still have a need for those government owned aircraft to put them back in on the ATV of the scientist or the ranger that needs to have that at a moment’s notice. But a lot of it I think will be contracted out.

[00:35:54] IAN: So you’ve finally settled the question for me so this is the third time I’ve asked this in the podcast that we’ve been recording today at the UAV Expo and one was answered by an enterprise and user one was answered by another government agency federal agency and then the second federal agency has just confirmed that basically in that drone service providers you’re not going to be losing your jobs anytime soon as long as you’re compliant and you do a good you know you have all basically just make sure you’re nicely well buttoned up you’re following those four steps for success.

[00:36:32] And you guys are still going to have plenty of work to do for enterprise companies and potentially even federal agencies as well. If you’re you know willing to do you know contract work which as a drone service provider that’s kind of the name of the game. So I think there’s been some can maybe that confusion but just like some worry like you know apprehension that oh yeah it’s getting so easy that you know we’re going to be out of jobs and everything. But I’m not really seeing that scene. There’s so many reasons. OK you guys have a lot of employees but you know you can’t be everywhere. And if I need someone to react really quickly then you know you pick up the phone on one of your contractors and you know put them into action. So that’s really interesting to hear. Ok cool so yeah you guys will be contracting out and making sure just getting the job done. How are you how you have to get it.

[00:37:24] MARK: Absolutely, and like I said in the manned aviation. So all told we’ve got about 1200 aircraft that we have access to about 200 of those are government owned. And so that makes a thousand aircraft out there that we contract for in one form or another. And why I say is going to be that with drones. You’re right. And drones are much less expensive and much easier to operate in terms of training and cost to operate. So you would think well the government is going to get into that a lot and will be cut out of the pattern. But you may not believe this government folks are businesslike. And my reason that I want to leverage the industry and contract for those drones is purely business.

[00:38:17] That technology is going to be changing so fast when we get a new drone. It’s going to be obsolete just like my cell phone was obsolete when I got it. And so I would rather have you have the responsibility for staying up with technology and using that as a competitive aspect in my contracts and force industry to stay up there because if you think about the lifecycle of these unmanned aircraft the small ones give me three to five years and that’s probably stretching it. So why do I want to buy a fleet of you know twelve hundred drones of various sizes and then have to figure out how I’m going to get rid of them when they become obsolete and three to five years makes a ton of sense.

[00:39:05] IAN: OK. Yeah that’s a great point actually. When was the first time you heard an unmanned aircraft or unmanned aerial vehicle referred to as a drone? You said you’ve been in drones for 25 years. How long did it take from 2005 or were they always calling them drones. Was this the media?

[00:39:25] MARK: Yeah. So it’s interesting.So in the Navy s drone is a target and really the connotation with the drone is you you set it on a course and it goes you know it’s got a particular profile and you’re shooting missiles or guns or whatever at it and you call it a drone because it doesn’t have the ability to be tasked dynamically in flight. We’re of course unmanned aircraft you know we try to call them unmanned aircraft systems and UIVS – I was reminded that you know if you have an adhesive bandage on your hand because you have a cut you don’t call it and these have banded you call it a?

[00:40:05] IAN: Band-Aid.

[00:40:05] MARK: Exactly. And it’s not a facial tissue. It’s a?

[00:40:09] IAN: Kleenex.

[00:40:09] MARK: Exactly. So it’s just the vernacular and I’m not threatened by the use of the word drone it’s obviously easier comes right off the tongue and it’s widely accepted like Band-Aid or Kleenex so you know.

[00:40:23] IAN: OK, that’s settled, all right. Cool. So OK. That’s great. If you had to design the perfect. The firefighting small firefighting drone right now what kind of components would it have. And that’s – yeah will go and round it out with this.

[00:40:47] MARK: No, great question so I’ll go back to my keynote this morning. So first on the on the aviation side it would have redundancies built in and a robustness that would ensure that it had the ability to recover if there were system failures.

[00:41:14] IAN: OK.

[00:41:15] MARK: You know kind of a graceful degradation. It might not stay airborne with all of the degradations but it would go down in such a way that it would not make the situation worse with folks on the ground.

[00:41:27] MARK: I love that that’s your first feature because you could totally tell that you’ve been in aviation for a long time when speaking about redundancy.

[00:41:35] MARK: We think the – you know and this is one of the reasons that we have had a measured entry into the drone space so privacy – it would need to have an encrypted control link an encrypted payload link because you can violate privacy by taking control whether that’s through an overt act or through EMI electromagnetic interference that takes you know inadvertent control of the drone fly at where it shouldn’t go and maybe collect the imagery that it shouldn’t.

[00:42:11] You know and as a federal agency we’re we’re very concerned with not violating people’s privacy rights or civil liberties so having the ability have that encrypted control link and the encrypted payload link so that my stream of what’s going on down that fire is not immediately being broadcast on YouTube. You know and might capture something that you know could you know be someone’s house going up or you know something worse happening. So those on the privacy side would be that.

[00:42:46] And then on the security side you know we’re moving into cloud storage, cloud processing of data. So making sure we have. And we continue to keep up on the security aspects of our drones and making sure that we’re talking to industry and we’re reading the privacy policies of the drones that we’re buying when recontracting for and we’re writing the specifications in our service contract so that we all have an understanding of what kind of security relative to the data we are going to require. So that would be some of the things I would probably have a long list but.

[00:43:30] IAN: What about like sensors and like you know kind of like is there any requirement obviously – infrared or infrared sensor?

[00:43:40] MARK: You know it’s a really interesting question because we’ve brought some of our scientists and biologists geologists together and you know we want to be able to know everything about what we’re looking at and we want to know what we can’t know from looking at it. So we’re looking at multi-spectral hyperspectral. You know we want to know when things are happening on the landscape whether it’s geologically or it’s to the vegetation to the animals while we still have time to do something about it you know it was a conversation on the panel today about climate change. You know one of the things climate change has done is made a lot of the data we’ve collected you know somewhat obsolete because things are changing.

[00:44:32] And it’s also really reminding us that we have to collect that data quicker and we have to collect better data so we can make more agile and informed decisions. So you know I hate to pick a sensor technology. All I can tell you is I want it to be carried on a small quadcopter or you know octacopter or small fixed wing. And I think that’s the real push whatever we’re flying on satellites on fixed wing and rotary wing manned aircraft. We want a flying drone so really pushing all of those technologies to get smaller in size smaller in weight and require less electrical power and less processing power. That’s my Christmas wish list.

[00:45:24] IAN: You will not be getting a lot of coal. I can tell you that at least for me Mark. Wow well that everything- that was fascinating so thank you so much for chatting and giving so much insight. I’ve learned so much about the Department of Interior what you guys are up to. How much you help out the public with these. I’m just I’m just imagining like drone doing a little like inspection of the Statue of Liberty now. I mean that’s it’s going to be cool I think to make some headlines maybe when people see that on the Ellis Island?

[00:46:00] MARK: Liberty Island is where the statue is.

[00:46:03] IAN: What am thinking? What is Ellis Island?

[00:46:04] MARK: Ellis Island is where – it’s also part of the National Park Service.

[00:46:08] IAN: Oh, that’s perfect.

[00:46:08] MARK: The immigrants arrived in New York.

[00:46:10] IAN: OK.

[00:46:11] MARK: Another part of our responsibilities actually. So thank you for that mention.

[00:46:15] IAND: No problem anytime. Awesome and cool. If you’re listening and you want to learn some more about what the Department of Interior is up to with regards to aviation and unmanned aircraft systems aKa drones, you can go to their website at DOI.gov/aviation. And that’s the main web page and from there you can find a UAS link. I wonder if it’s called drone on there but I doubt it. And yeah.

[00:46:42] Thanks so much for listening. You can follow the podcast on Twitter @dronespodcast or Facebook.com/dronespodcast, if you like what you’re listening to. Go ahead and subscribe on iTunes or whatever you’re listening to the podcast on. And we really appreciate it. Once again Mark Batherick, the Director of the office of aviation services for the Department of the Interior of the United States. Thank you so much again for being here Mark really appreciate it.

[00:47:10] MARK: Thank you. A pleasure.

[00:47:12] IAN: All right. Y’all take care.