Interior Dept’s ‘Drone Meister’ discusses UAS past, present, and future

If a single person were to be designed the “Drone Meister” of US government aerial operations, it might well be Mark Bathrick – the recently retired director of the Department of the Interior’s Office of Aviation Services (OAS), who assembled and oversaw the increasingly diversified use of the world’s largest fleet of non-military UAS. Creator of the agency’s “Drones for Good” program, Bathrick spoke to DroneDJ about how those operations evolved over the past two decades and how it’s likely to continue in the future.

A career Navy fighter pilot who also flew countless high-risk experimental test flights, Bathrick retired from the armed forces directly into a senior executive government job in 2005, when he began his 16-year stint with the Department of the Interior (DOI). As head of its OAS program, Bathrick brought along his Naval “reputation of identifying things that needed improvement – technology opportunities – and relentless pursuit of getting those installed,” even when that bucked established systems. By the time he took leave of the DOI late last year, Bathrick had integrated drones as an essential, effective, and cost-saving tool of the massive US operations he encountered fresh out of the Navy.

“Here’s this agency with tremendous responsibilities – overseeing 500 million acres of public land, one out of five in the US – and as the director of aviation the resources I had were just not enough,” Bathrick recalls. “Then I thought, ‘My gosh, drones would be the perfect technology for managing these public lands,’ so we started down the path of land management with drones from there… By the time I retired, we had developed what is still the world’s largest non-military drone program, with 850 drones in the fleet, over 36,000 flights, and present in almost every state and US territory, operating 30 different types of applications.”

Those included wildfire prevention and fighting, search and rescue, mapping and surveillance, wildlife and habitat monitoring, emergency and disaster response, and considerable climate change science research. In pursuing that work, Bathrick conceived the DOI’s “Drones for Good” program, which not only devised new, beneficial services using UAVs, but also a vital pedagogical framework to help communities understand and embrace the craft appearing above their heads in parks, public lands, and other venues.

“The ‘Six Ss’ were part of the process to help the public understand what we were using drones for,” Bathrick says of the science, safety, savings, service, sustainability, and STEM categories – each of which helped people grasp why drones that were often negatively associated with spying and military strikes were positive tools under control of DOI pilots. “We figured we did those missions at one-tenth the cost – $15 million saved annually – and at one-seventh the time of usual methods, using drones to provide persistent, high-resolution scientific data to the agency that makes decisions about public land.”

That educational and acclimation work, Bathrick says, was necessary in overcoming the inevitable resistance people have to craft hovering above them gathering information. That same kind of reluctance, he says, will again be a challenge as advanced air mobility (AAM) services like air taxis prepare to launch – an aversion he thinks operators could overcome by following the DOI’s example.

“We knew to get our drones accepted by people, we needed to prove the effectiveness, safety, and value of what we were doing,” Bathrick recalls. “I’ve always found that when trying to introduce new technology, the culture – whether it’s organizational culture or humans writ large – was always the biggest obstacle. So our plan was very deliberate in information sharing and being very public about what we were doing, and we worked through a lot of smaller projects. If you’re an AAM company thinking you need scaling nation-wide, you’re fooling yourself. Figure out where a market is, make it your early-adopter market, and go there and do really well.”

As the painstaking orchestrator of new drone applications and deployment over wary people in the past, Bathrick says he fears next-generation aircraft developers may be rushing too fast to embrace the enormous opportunities of AAM services that may close up if their haste leads to mishaps.

“Companies may not fully appreciate the unforgiving nature of aviation, and I fear some of the methods they are using may be quick, but not as robust as they need to be,” he says. “I saw this with smaller UAS. Some of the first companies we dealt with are no more because they got a product into the street that didn’t survive the unforgiving nature of when things go wrong… But if AAM companies respect a deliberate build-up program and data sharing policy to gain trust, and prove they’re working well, they’ll gain the confidence of the FAA – and, as importantly, the public. The public lives and works under all this stuff, and it needs to be comfortable with what’s happening, accept being a part of it.”

But as exciting as futuristic air taxi and other AAM travel is, Bathrick says the even bigger opportunities in blossoming drone activity and services lie elsewhere – notably in data collection and analysis. 

“Drone delivery is neat, and it certainly can reduce cost and time in last-mile terms, but the data – and the ability to understand what’s going on, to improve your decision-making, to improve safety – represents major opportunities,” he says. “You use machine vision, machine learning, edge computing, cloud computing, high-performance computing, and be able to take that data and process and manipulate it and create other derivative products. And with beyond visual line of sight, which will be a further democratization of the third dimension, we’ll be increasing the data we collect. Data as a service will be enormous – collecting data once and selling it as many times as you can find uses for it.”

Bathrick also sees the near and medium future holding major gains in both aerial and terrestrial robotics, full automation of a wide variety of processes, as well as development of large drones capable of carrying over 55 lbs. But the nearest, dearest potentials Bathrick anticipates coming from evolving UAS operations is the room it will create for people who have often been shut out of earlier activity.

“The expanded jobs I think will be created on both the drone and data analysis side for people with disabilities and wounded warriors will go beyond Drones for Good, and achieve Drones for Better,” Bathrick predicts “I think those people, who may not have had the opportunities before, will have much more in the kind of work this technology is creating.”


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