As fires raged in the Oregon’s Umpqua National Forest in August 2017, the infrared video camera on an Interior Department unmanned aerial vehicle spotted a previously undetected blaze that threatened a hydroelectric power plant, homes and a government ranger station.
The smaller fire, likely set off by a windblown ember, was contained before it got out of control, averting an estimated $50 million in potential damage. This event was one of many recent success stories stemming from drones dispatched at 71 wildfires in 2017, part of the unmanned aerial vehicle program created and overseen by Mark Bathrick, director of the Interior Department’s Office of Aviation Services.
During the past decade, Bathrick has built the government’s largest unmanned aerial vehicle fleet outside the Department of Defense, deploying 312 drones that flew nearly 5,000 times over public lands in 2017. Besides fighting fires, Interior’s drones have been used to support everything from dam and pipeline inspections to wildlife and vegetation surveys, volcano research, wild horse roundups, and search and rescue missions.
Bathrick, a former Navy Top Gun fighter and test pilot, built the program from the ground up, initially acquiring surplus drones worth $25 million from the Pentagon at no cost and starting operations with 208 flights in 2010.
Along the way, Bathrick established flight protocols and a state-of-the-art pilot training program. He has overseen the certification of 200 pilots involved in natural resource management activities in 32 states, and secured Federal Aviation Administration approvals for unique operating flexibilities. He implemented strict safety measures, addressed privacy concerns, reached out to communities to explain drone operations and introduced the technology across many of the department’s bureaus.
“Mark’s program at Interior is the gold standard for civilian use of unmanned aerial vehicles in government,” said Phillip Hall, who heads the drone initiative at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“He has brought his aviation background and leadership to the program, successfully dealing with significant challenges regarding training, acquisition and cybersecurity,” Hall said. “He is on the leading edge of policy development and has made the unmanned aerial vehicles extremely useful to his organization.”
Brian Wynne, president of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said Bathrick has “successfully integrated a new technology to enhance the capabilities of government.”
“He has focused on solving problems and saving taxpayers an enormous amount of money,” Wynne said. “In the case of wildfires, he has helped save lives and property.”
The unmanned aircraft, fitted with video cameras, infrared heat sensors and other equipment, can deliver high-resolution images and data to the computers manned by pilots on the ground.
During forest fires, the drones have given firefighters a tactical advantage by improving their surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, and enabling them to detect hotspots, position crews, identify escape routes and enhance safety. Bathrick and his team are now experimenting with new, larger drones to assist in fire-suppression operations. Unlike manned aircraft, the drones can fly at night and in heavy smoke.
Drones have been used for at least 20 different Interior Department functions, including counting thousands of migratory Sandhill Cranes that occupy marshes and grasslands in Colorado’s Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge; inspecting parts of Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming to determine whether hiking trails were safe to use; monitoring illegal dumping in the Mojave Desert; and determining if pollutants were seeping from abandoned mines in various parts of the West.
Harry Humbert, the Interior Department’s deputy assistant secretary for public safety, said Bathrick excels at “collaborative leadership” and consistently has made the case that important tasks can be done more efficiently, at a lower cost and more safely in some cases, with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles.
Bathrick also has worked to develop sound policies and understand how the drone technology can best be used to serve the public, said Mark Gibson, president of NUAIR Alliance, a not-for-profit corporation that oversees unmanned aircraft testing.
“One word describes Mark and that is ‘effective,’ ’’ Gibson said. “He gets things done in a well-reasoned way. He not only has had a significant impact at Interior with the use of this technology, but across the entire government.”