Federal UAS program offers potential beyond fighting wildfires

By Patrick C. Miller | March 13, 2019

Legislation passed by Congress last month establishing a federal program to integrate unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) technology into wildfire fighting operations has the potential to create even more opportunities for drones, according to Tara Stearman, a senior unmanned systems consultant with PropelUAS in Falls Church, Virginia.

The Natural Resources Management Act passed by Congress includes a provision establishing a research, development and testing program to assess UAS technologies for wildland fire management operations. Within 180 days, the secretaries of the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) and Department of Agriculture (DOA) are directed to implement a program in coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The goal is to accelerate the deployment and integration of UAS technologies into fighting wildfires.

“Overall, this is a positive,” Stearman said. “It’s going to be tricky to get all the agencies on the same page and to collaborate, but it can absolutely be done. We’re ultimately going to be saving lives with this technology.”

Stearman, an FAA-licensed advanced ground instructor and small UAS operator, has 18 years of experience in the aviation industry. She is a graduate of the FAA Air Route Traffic Control Academy and the Lockheed Martin Flight Service Academy.

For more than a decade, companies such as General Atomics, Insitu, Textron Systems and others have been involved in using UAS technology to help battle wildfires in the western U.S. But Stearman said formally establishing a program with two federal agencies and getting the FAA involved is significant and could lead to even more opportunities for drones.

“The bill itself doesn’t really give a clear picture of the size and magnitude of the project,” Stearman noted. “We’re talking about 3.5 million acres of land managed by DOI—plus another 750,000 acres managed by DOA—as the testing ground. This is where we’re going to utilize this technology and implement the program.”

Ultimately, Stearman believes the program has the potential to develop UAS applications beyond fighting wildfires, such real-time identification of manned and unmanned aircraft and using terrain mapping, not only to identify where fires are likely to occur, but also to pinpoint where flooding and landslides could happen after a fire.

“State and local agencies should have access to this type of technology and be able to benefit from it,” she said. “It’s expected to be a free web-based database—the rapid response erosion database. They’re going to be assessing the risk after a fire, looking at the changes in land cover and soil properties.”

Stearman said drone data gathered during firefighting operations might also be applied to the use of UAS for disaster response, such as evaluating damage after floods and hurricanes.

“In the realm of emergency response, I think it will do wonders for drone use for search and rescue and also local firefighting,” she said. “This might expand the regulations to include some more broadly accepted activities that come to light through their testing.”

Direct FAA involvement during the federal UAS R&D program is crucial to its success, Stearman said.

“It would be most beneficial if everyone is onboard with the FAA getting their hands dirty—getting in there and saying, ‘Here are the regulations. Here’s what we have so far. Here’s the process and how it works.’ It will be beneficial if the federal agencies involved have a collaborative mindset, which the FAA usually does. Let’s see what they can do to push those regulations and expand them further for emergency services.”