U.S. Interior Department Awards Contract for Quadcopters

 - August 24, 2016, 4:38 PM
The 3D Robotics Solo quadcopter is shown at Yosemite National Park in California. (Photo courtesy U.S. Department of the Interior)

The U.S. Department of the Interior has contracted with drone manufacturer 3D Robotics (3DR), of Berkeley, Calif., to order up to 40 of the company’s Solo quadcopters for aerial survey, fire management and other missions. The department awarded 3DR an indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contract with a value of up to $256,000 on August 2.

“The contract is extremely important to the Department, as it will allow us to conduct many missions that were previously impossible due to limited resources and costs associated with using manned aircraft,” said Harry Humbert, deputy assistant secretary for public safety, resource protection and emergency services.

Introduced in April 2015, the 3.3-pound Solo carries either a GoPro Hero 4 camera or custom gimbals for the professional-grade Sony UMC-R10C lens-style camera or FLIR Vue Pro R thermal and radiometric imaging camera. 3DR lists a flight time of 15 minutes with payload and 1 km range.

The Interior department said it undertook a lengthy process to develop performance requirements for the “most useful type of aircraft” before making the contract award. The contact was likely welcome news for 3DR, which earlier this year laid off an undisclosed number of employees from its 100-person work force in a restructuring effort to better compete in the “cutthroat” consumer drone market, according to MarketWatch.

An Interior spokesperson said the Solos will be made available for use by the constituent agencies of the department, which include among others the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey.

“The Department expects to use these aircraft for a diverse set of missions including, wildlife and vegetation surveys, fire management, search and rescue, hydrologic study, cultural resource inventory, and surface mining monitoring, just to name a few,” said Mark Bathrick, director of the Interior department’s Office of Aviation Services in Boise, Idaho. “These UAS will not only provide us with better science and reduce the risk to our employees, but they will result in cost savings and better service for the Department and the American people.”

Last month, the Interior department announced the activation of a prototype warning system to prevent drones from interfering with firefighting operations.

The department developed the system with leading small drone manufacturer DJI and airspace mapping providers AirMap of Santa Monica, Calif., and Skyward of Portland. AirMap and Skyward now obtain wildfire information from Interior’s Integrated Reporting Wildland-Fire Information program and transmit it to drone pilots through AirMap applications and the DJI Geospatial Environment Online (GEO) geofencing system.