Secure, but not safe?

The tension between firefighting drones and national drone security regulations.

It’s no secret that North America – and the west coast of the U.S. in particular – has had a particularly bad wildfire season this year.

As of September 29,  70 active fires have burned over 3.9 million acres across the United States, and evacuation orders across the west coast remain in place near 17 large fires.

And that’s just active fires. The US National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) reports that, to date, there have been 4,091 wildfires which have burned 7.4 million acres across the country.

That’s over 1 million more acres burned than the 10-year average. 

Although the ultimate solution to this problem likely lies in more sustainable housing development, better forest management, power infrastructure upgrades, and other regulatory and business measures, drones can play a critical role in mitigating some of the damage that forest fires cause.

Unfortunately, policymakers and drone operators haven’t yet figured out how to balance national security concerns with an optimally effective fire response.

What are drones doing to help forest fire responses?

Over the years, drones have come to play an important role in the detection, containment, and extinguishing of forest fires, primarily by providing firefighters with accurate data.

Equipped with LiDAR, infrared cameras, and other sensors, drones can map fire-prone areas and, in the event of a fire, capture data on fire spread/speed, heat concentration, smoke, and other variables, all of which can be combined to help predict where a fire will move next.

This helps decision-makers make more strategic choices on firefighting, and evacuation, and other response factors.

Where are they doing this?

All over the West.

But here are some examples:

  • In Colorado, firefighters are using drones to deploy “Dragon Eggs” —  small explosives that combat wildfires by eating up the wildfire’s fuel. 
  • Near the Big Hollow wildfire in Washington, the FAA granted pilots of Verizon subsidiary Skyward, a temporary waiver from September 23 to 25, that allows them to fly the Percepto Sparrow drone from their homes to inspect critical communications infrastructure. The waiver lets them do this 24 hours a day, with less than 3 miles of visibility, and no pilot or observer on site. 
  • The Los Angeles Fire Department has been using drones to go where flame retardant-dropping planes and helicopters can’t go since at least 2017.

So how are regulations getting in the way?

In January this year, the US Department of the Interior (DOI) grounded its 810-drone fleet and stopped procuring Chinese-made drones over concerns that information about critical infrastructure could be leaked to the Chinese government. 

This move was in alignment with the proposed American Security Drone Act of 2020, which seeks to ban federal departments and agencies from purchasing any commercial off-the-shelf drone or small unmanned aircraft system manufactured or assembled in China or other countries identified for national-security concerns. 

It would seem that security comes at a cost, however. An internal memo from the department’s Office of Aviation Services, leaked to The Financial Times, says the decision is hampering the DOI’s ability to fight wildfires.

Although technically DOI still allows its drones to be used for emergency situations like disaster monitoring, the memo suggests that decision has stymied necessary measures that would have equipped the fleet to effectively fight fires.

How so?

According to the memo, by the end of 2020,  the department will only have carried out 28 percent of the controlled burning it could have done had it followed through on its plan to purchase 17 new Ignis systems, which work with heavy-lift machines like DJI’s M600 Matrice and are used to start controlled fires

Without them, the internal memo says the department has had to either use aircraft manned by firefighters — putting lives at risk — or not carried out the burning at all.

“Denying the acquisition of UAS [drone] aerial ignition devices directly transfers risk to firefighters who must use manned aircraft to complete these missions rather than a safer option utilizing UAS,” the memo states.

Will this impact other federal agencies?

Quite possibly.

In letters written in September 2019 and obtained by The New York Times, Stephen L. Censky, the deputy secretary of the Department of Agriculture, told the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget that the agency had major concerns with the law.

Censky wrote that the American Drone Security Act would “severely impact the establishment, development and implementation” of the Agriculture Department’s drone program “to carry out our mission-crucial work.”

Surely there is another side to the story.

Absolutely.

While DJI has decried the move to ban Chinese drones as a “protectionist ploy to exclude successful competitors in favor of domestic suppliers that don’t exist,” and a threat to forest conservation, the decision to ban Chinese-manufactured drones was based on more than protectionism.


Federal officials have been saying that they are worried that DJI drones are sending data back to China as early as 2017, although DJI has firmly denied this accusation. In that same year, the Army banned its employees from using DJI products.

There seems to be a strong, bipartisan belief that the ban is necessary to prevent the Chinese government from seeing what the United States government is seeing through DJI drone flights.

What now?

While it may be too late to turn things around for the wildfires of 2020, if the act makes it through the legislative process, all is not lost for firefighting drone efforts.

On a federal level, it all comes down to whether or not it’s viable to replace the Chinese-manufactured drones in agency fleets with drones manufactured in the U.S. or an allied country.

Currently, the supply chain for materials and components does not support an adequately scaled production of comparable platforms in the United States.

For instance, the California startup, Skydio, makes its drones in the U.S. but still uses some Chinese parts. Its chief executive, Adam Bry, told the New York Times in February that all the core components were American, and that the company was moving away from using the Chinese parts altogether.

Similarly, Paris-based drone manufacturer Parrot is set to release its latest platform, ANAFI USA.

The drone is said to be manufactured in the U.S., and designed with the needs of first responders, firefighters, search-and-rescue teams, security agencies, surveying and inspection professionals, in mind. And, it has a sensor and software ecosystem that features 32x zoom, 4K HDR video, and thermal imaging capabilities. 

On a state and local level, things may be (for the time being at least) simpler.

The American Drone Security Act of 2020 doesn’t seem to prohibit procurement of Chinese-manufactured drones by non-federal agencies, meaning that the L.A. Fire Department, which has a strong working relationship with DJI and was looking to double its fleet of firefighting drones in 2019, will likely be able to carry on with their procurements and possibly use the pending legislation to pressure Chinese manufacturers to take greater measures to assure them of data security. 

Regardless of the fate and implication of the Drone Security Act of 2020, it highlights a tension between safety, security, and affordability, and shows that “drones for good” use cases are the product of difficult decisions and compromise. 

Miriam Hinthorn - Contributing Author

Miriam Hinthorn - Contributing Author

Miriam Hinthorn is an experienced management professional who is currently pursuing her master’s in Data, Economics, and Development Policy at MIT while serving as principal consultant at Consult92.

Miriam developed a love for UAS technology when she served as operations manager at Consortiq. Today, having completed over 30 successful projects in 10 countries, she loves solving a wide variety of logistical, technical, and cultural challenges for her clients so that they can focus on what care about most.

Ready to Integrate Drones Into Your Organization? Contact Us Today to Get Started!

These 4 Municipalities Advanced With Drone Technology

Municipalities around the world are exploring the benefits of UAV technology. In a study conducted by Goldman Sachs Research, the drone sector’s fastest growth opportunity centers on civil governments and businesses. Between 2016 and 2020, this segment of the industry will have spent $13 billion on drone acquisitions.

Drones offer city planners and administrators improved efficiencies and cost savings. UAVs are becoming indispensable tools for local governments to serve in roles across law enforcement, pandemic response, public safety, and others. As public opinion continues to improve, drones use will expand to an even more extensive range of tasks.

The rapid spread of drones, internationally, has cities around the world reporting positive results in testing and application.

1. Baltimore, Maryland - United States

Initially, public opinion of drones voiced concerns over invasion of privacy and dangers to crewed aircraft.

While some of these concerns were valid, improved legislation and awareness are mitigating much of the fear people had when drones started to become commonplace. As the public’s view improves, cities must decide if UAV technology benefits outweigh these concerns. In many cases, they do.

From the city of Annapolis using drones in 2017 to access traffic patterns to Howard County’s police force’s current operations, Maryland is embracing drones. Howard County’s drone program is larger than any other policy agency’s UAV program in the state. Drones have already helped in searches and crash investigations with great success.

2. Southampton - United Kingdom

The coronavirus has had a devastating impact across the world. As scientists and medical professionals look for vaccines and treatments, the UAV community is helping to keep people safe.

The Solent Transport partnership includes the Hampshire County Council, Portsmouth City Council, Southampton City Council, and the Isle of Wight Council. The partnership has worked with the University of Southampton to test drones delivering medical supplies across the strait.

This is a pre-cursor to the Future Mobility Zones (FTZ) initiative that is due to start later this year. This 3-year, cross-organizational, multi-million pound regulation, infrastructure and technology project will see the Solent area become the UK’s first full functional “UTM,” pioneering routine Beyond Visual Line-of-Sight (BVLOS) drone operations.

Gareth Beverley, Consortiq’s FTZ Programme Director said: “Consortiq has a fantastic opportunity to make a lasting improvement to our local area, and hopefully the wider UK. Our experience in drone operations, navigating regulations, training and software are all integral to the success of the FTZ drones initiative.”

The trial, a first of its kind, used Windracers ULTRA UAV to transport medical supplies to COVID patients on the Isla of Wight, the United Kingdom’s second-most populous island. Researchers and government officials hope to increase efficiency, decrease the transportation time for medical supplies in the region, and reduce costs.

3. Dubai - United Arab Emirates

Just like the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates is seeking help from drones in the fight against COVID. The city of Dubai has been a significant supporter of drone technology. From drones for the police force to UAV taxis carrying humans, the city has embraced the UAV industry and continues to do so in the fight against COVID.

With a population of over 3.3 million, Dubai faces severe challenges from the virus. Public spaces are potential breed grounds for COVID and of great concern to city officials. Dubai is employing drones to sanitize large areas of the metropolis.

Drones designed initially for spraying pesticides in agriculture are now being repurposed for the task. The municipality is sterilizing 129 sites across the city and 23 public areas. The operation is part of a national sterilization program aimed at curbing the spread of COVID.

4. Ensenada - Mexico

A few years ago, the City of Ensenada purchased a single DJI Inspire 1 for their police force. With a population of just over 500,000 and covering 23.58 square miles, the city is one of Baja, California’s top tourist destinations.

From a control room, municipal police can operate the drone and direct it to the source of 911 emergency calls. The city has permission to fly their drone Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) from the Mexican air authorities. Video feeds from the drone can be view by command units and officers on the ground.

After just four months of implementation, the DJI Inspire 1 yielded impressive results. The drone aided in over 500 arrests. For most emergency 911 calls, the drone arrived before police officers. Even more impressive was a 30% decrease in robberies and an overall crime reduction by 10%.

Bringing It All Together - Drones & Municipalities

Municipalities deal with complex issues and fiscal challenges on a daily basis.

In financially challenging times, such as the current economic downturn from COVID, administrators and city officials should consider implementing drones into their operations. Exploring UAV technology is likely to result in cost savings and benefits well worth the time it takes to speak with a professional drone consultancy firm.

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About Consortiq

Consortiq is a global market leader of custom drone solutions. Our employees are driven by a mission to help corporations and state organisations leverage drone technology to accelerate progress and achieve the success they desire. At Consortiq, we base our solutions on intensive quantitative and qualitative research, hard facts, and deep subject matter expertise. As a talented group of drone and manned aircraft pilots, software engineers, defense consultants, and former air traffic control professionals, Consortiq’s employees understand the intricacies of aerial platforms and are able to provide a wide range of nuanced, effective solutions. 

We have a strong track record of providing training, logistical operations planning, fleet management software, risk mitigation, and legal/regulatory services, to clients in the media, public infrastructure, and public safety industries in Europe, North America, and the Middle East.

Our accredited training program helps pilots prepare and go beyond the US Part 107 and the UK GVC

Need help developing a safe, compliant, and efficient program? Complete the form below to get started!

David Daly - Contributing Author

David Daly - Contributing Author

David Daly, is an award-winning photographer/writer and licensed (FAA) Commercial sUAS pilot. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy, David is a former Marine Corps officer with a BS in Oceanography and has earned his MBA from the University of Redlands. David has worked for Fortune 100 companies and has a background in aerospace, construction, military/defense, real estate, and technology.

Ready to Integrate Drones Into Your Organization? Contact Us Today to Get Started!

How to Improve Education Programs With Drones

At the start of the new millennium, academic research identified a potential problem for students in the United States.

Compared to their counterparts around the world, American students were becoming less prepared for the modern global workforce. Studies identified a particular shortfall in understanding science and math-related concepts.

In response to the problem, in 2001, the U.S. National Science Foundation coined the acronym STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics). The acronym became the foundation for a new approach to education.  

The U.S. Dept. of Education states that:

  • only 16% of high school students are interested in a STEM career and have proven a proficiency in mathematics
  • 57% of high school freshmen who declare an interest in a STEM-related field lose interest before they graduate high school
  • There is an estimated need for at least 8.65 million workers in STEM-related jobs
  • The skills gap in the manufacturing sector is significant. It faces a big shortage of skilled employees – nearly 600,000.

STEM-focused curriculum exposes students to a deeper understanding of technical concepts and careers in the industries related to STEM disciplines. Students who become excited about working in STEM industries at an early age are more likely to attend college and receive a bachelor’s degree.  

Since the development of STEM almost 20 years ago, numerous countries have adopted programs similar to the one developed in the United States. STEM centered education now exists in the United Kingdom, France, China, Australia, South Korean, and Taiwan.

In recent years, drones have begun to play a significant role in STEM curriculum and education in general. Drones can help teach a wide range of concepts and life lessons that otherwise might be difficult for students to understand. Most UAVs are easy to learn to fly, and many are inexpensive, making them accessible to everyone.

How Drones Benefit Education

Drones — ground based, submersible and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — offer many benefits to educators and students.  

Drones, and UAVs in particular, are excellent complementary tools for STEM education. Students benefit from exposure to technology, show signs of increased information retention rates, and can experience learning on an individual or group level. Educators benefit from high-quality resources, such as coding software with professionally built lesson plans.

As a form of technology, drones are simple and sophisticated at the same time. Studies have shown that the use of technology aids in the retention of information. As students use technology, they are often participating in groups or, at the very least, actively engage in the learning process.

When students are exposed to UAVs in the classroom, they can learn complex concepts, such as aeronautics, in an easily digestible format. Understanding the physics behind what makes an aircraft fly might be challenging to teach, at some grade levels, using traditional methods.  

If instead of reviewing the mathematics behind lift vs. drag, the student learns while flying a drone and the concept is often much clearer.

Additionally, drones are excellent tools for teaching the fundamentals of design. For a drone to submerge, drive, or fly, it must operate within specific parameters. The unmanned aircraft’s design must perform in a manner that adheres to principles such as lift vs. drag.

With a 3D printer, students learn why individual components, such as propellers, are designed a certain way, and can experiment independently with deviations on the design and how it affects performance.

Exposure to programming is another benefit. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, computer programmers had a median pay in 2019 of $41.61 per hour.

Drones bring programming into the classroom. Several high-quality software programs and applications help teach coding with UAS.

Some programs allow educators and students to complete a series of tasks with their drones through coding instructions. Others allow for the drone itself to “learn” how to fly.

In the ideal situation, students can design their drone and program as part of a project-based learning unit. Young children can even grasp programming through the use of drag-and-drop “blocks” of code which when plugged together can make the drone actually perform tasks in front of their eyes.

From an artistic perspective, drones can expose students to photography and videography. Much of our learning process deals with changing perspectives and challenging what is known about the world around us. Drones may be the first time a student sees the world from another viewpoint.  

Some educators are finding success in using aerial photography to aid in teaching map-making, as tools to learning new languages, graphing mathematical concepts, and much more.

Drones work well as tools for both individuals and groups. Students can learn responsibility from flying on their own and, in the process, gain confidence.

In a group, teamwork can showcase how, as a unit, students who know next to nothing about drones can start from scratch and design, build, program, and fly their team’s creation.

Educators are tireless professionals always searching for new methods to make the educational process stronger. With the right guidance, drones are easily integrated into the classroom. The benefits of UAV technology, particularly as a part of a STEM-curriculum, are well worth the investment.

David Daly - Contributing Author

David Daly - Contributing Author

David Daly, is an award-winning photographer/writer and licensed (FAA) Commercial sUAS pilot. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy, David is a former Marine Corps officer with a BS in Oceanography and has earned his MBA from the University of Redlands. David has worked for Fortune 100 companies and has a background in aerospace, construction, military/defense, real estate, and technology.

Ready to Integrate Drones Into Your Organization? Contact Us Today to Get Started!

Could Locust Invasion Lead to Drone Innovation?

As you may have heard, huge swarms of desert locusts are devouring crops across western and central India in what has been seen as the worst locust invasion in almost 30 years.

The locusts had already destroyed over 50,000 hectares (125,000 acres) of cropland by the end of May, and by the sound of things, the situation could get worse in the coming weeks.

That's sad, but what does it have to do with drones?

Drone use was essentially outright banned in India from 2014 to 2018.

Since 2018,  authorities have nominally eased restrictions and tried to cultivate a robust UAS sector, but the regulations are so burdensome, and the permissions application process is so slow, that there has been limited innovation in the UAS sector thus far. 

However, due to the locust invasion, that might change. In rapid response to the crisis, on May 21st, India’s Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) granted a conditional exemption to the agriculture ministry’s Directorate of Plant Protection, Quarantine, and Storage (DPPQS). The exemption allows DPPQS to use remotely piloted aircraft in support of aerial surveillance, photography, public announcements, and spraying pesticides.

According to a senior government official, “this is unprecedented for India since it’s the first time we’ve allowed drones to carry payloads in a civilian use case, or spray any pesticides for that matter.”

He added that there had previously been some trials for crop spraying using drones, but that those were strictly restricted to specific zones, whereas the new exemption allows the agriculture ministry to fly drones anywhere.

Government drones are nice and all, but how will this foster innovation in the UAS sector?

According to the exemption, DPPQS can choose to own and operate their own drones, and each operation has to be carried out under their overall supervision and control, but they can engage third-party UAS service providers to provide and/or operate the drones.

Various state agricultural departments have issued tenders for drones and drone services to the private sector, and there’s been pressure on MoCA to work out some kinks in its regulation of agricultural drone operations that had been ignored for too long. 

Cool. So, back to pesticide drones - are they working?

It’s too early to tell just how cost-effective the pesticide drones are, but the initial reports seem pretty promising.

Notably, according to a deputy director of Rajasthan’s Agriculture Department, when government drones sprayed pesticide in two of Rajasthan’s districts, an impressive 70% of the locusts were destroyed.

However, there are some pretty tough operational challenges that might stymie success. For one, during monsoon season, certain regions of India get very heavy rain, which can make safe UAS operations impossible. For instance, a team in Jaipur was faced with heavy rains until late at night. They seem to have launched the operation around midnight,  which is technically a violation of the exemption’s conditions since technically nighttime operations are currently not allowed.

Additionally, the mountainous and hilly terrain of certain regions may make it hard to maintain visual line one sight (VLOS) throughout operations. On the bright side, perhaps these adverse conditions will force regulatory agencies to issue permission for night and BVLOS operations, which could set a pretty cool status quo for the UAS sector as a whole.

So, will the restrictions be loosened now that drones are "the good guys?"

It’s too early to tell, but this is certainly an unprecedented opportunity for the power of UAS technology to be demonstrated in India and other parts of the world.

If the locust-fighting drones are visibly successful, it could certainly pressure the government to create a framework for UAS authorizations for other dire circumstances such as flooding, landslides, and other natural disasters. And in a broader global context, the publicity of these operations in India could deepen global awareness of this use case. 

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has already been developing anti-locust drone solutions in east Africa since February, and if they, the government of India, and other disaster relief stakeholders, joined forces, they might just set a fantastic new precedent for drone use in agriculture.

Miriam Hinthorn - Contributing Author

Miriam Hinthorn - Contributing Author

Miriam Hinthorn is an experienced management professional who is currently pursuing her master’s in Data, Economics, and Development Policy at MIT while serving as principal consultant at Consult92.

Miriam developed a love for UAS technology when she served as operations manager at Consortiq. Today, having completed over 30 successful projects in 10 countries, she loves solving a wide variety of logistical, technical, and cultural challenges for her clients so that they can focus on what care about most.

Ready to Integrate Drones Into Your Organization? Contact Us Today to Get Started!