Department of the Interior Recommends Redesigned National Airspace for Drones

During an event at the Brookings Institution, the Director of the Department of the Interior’s Office of Aviation Services (OAS) recommended changes to national airspace regulations to allow federal, state, and local governments to better utilize drone technology. Director Mark Bathrick spoke of the new opportunities drones present and the department’s increased use of the technology.

According to statements made by Director Bathrick, the department views drones, formally called unmanned aircraft systems, as providing better data and scientific feedback from public land surveillance, improved safety, cost savings, and more direct services.

Director Bathrick discussed how drones are already being used for dangerous missions instead of personnel, for example “inspecting dams by putting an engineer over the side of the road.”

Previously, the department has also reported using drones to carry out wildfire responses at night, since helicopters can only operate eight hours a day. The agency reports that drone operations require 1/7th of the time other missions require and only 1/10th of the resources.

Bathrick reported that the agency has saved $14 million since 2018 by substituting helicopters for small drones when monitoring land, tracking animal migrations, and running fire, flood, and volcano missions. The fleet has only suffered 10 mechanical failures on over 20,000 flights, according to Bathrick.

However, Bathrick also noted that currently airspace rules are out of date when applying drone technology.

Director Bathrick recommended that airspace under 400 feet be redesigned so federal, state, and local government can take advantage of drone technology. Rather than banning low flying drones, Bathrick recommended that government agencies work together to establish secure standards and requirements around drones and then collaborate with industry to ensure those standards are met.

These standards should include privacy requirements, according to Bathrick, but avoid reinventing regulations that already exist and can be applied to drones, such as airplane regulations.

“The biggest thing we’ve done in privacy is we train all of our operators and all of our program managers to talk to the public before they launch,” Bathrick said. “Once you do that, they put their imaginations to bed.

The department works with drone vendors to ensure they meet security requirements as well. These requirements mean drones should have encrypted controlling and pay loading and the ability to prevent unwanted information sharing.

“Banning products never generated the U.S. industry,” Bathrick said. “And frankly it’s not going to solve the security issue.”

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