Feds at Work: Built the largest drone fleet outside of the Department of Defense

Drones are helping with firefighting, dam inspections, wildlife and vegetation surveys, and more

Mark Bathrick (Photo by Audrey Lew Photography)

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 Mark Bathrick created and oversees.

During the past decade, Bathrick, director of the Interior Department’s Office of Aviation Services, has built the government’s largest unmanned aerial vehicle fleet outside the Department of Defense. In 2017, it deployed 312 drones that flew nearly 5,000 times over public lands. Interior’s drones also have supported everything from dam and pipeline inspections to wildlife and vegetation surveys, volcano research, wild horse roundups, and search and rescue missions.

“Mark’s program at Interior is the gold standard for civilian use of unmanned aerial vehicles in government.” ~Phillip Hall

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, he 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.

Interior’s Office of Aviation equipment is used by personnel from USGS in their ongoing rapid response to the Kilauea volcano eruptions in Hawaii (United States Geological Survey)

He also 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 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s drone initiative.

Bathrick also has saved taxpayers “an enormous amount of money,” said Brian Wynne, president of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

The unmanned aircraft, fitted with video cameras, infrared heat sensors and other equipment, can deliver high-resolution images and data to computers manned by pilots on the ground.

The drones have improved firefighters’ surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, enabling them to detect hot spots and position crews, identify escape routes and enhance safety.

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 a national wildlife refuge in Colorado; inspecting parts of a national monument in Wyoming to determine if hiking trails were safe to use; and monitoring illegal dumping in the Mojave Desert.

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, said Harry Humbert, the Interior Department’s deputy assistant secretary for public safety.

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.

“He gets things done in a well-reasoned way,” Gibson said. “He not only has had a significant impact at Interior with the use of this technology, but across the entire government.”

Mark L. Bathrick and Team are finalists for the 2018 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, which are presented annually by the nonpartisan, nonprofit Partnership for Public Service to honor unsung heroes in our federal government who have made important contributions to our nation’s health, safety and prosperity.

Help us share their stories on social media using #Sammies2018. Nominations for 2019 will open in September, so be on the lookout for inspiring federal employees you would like to recognize.

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