Interior Dept. moves forward on drone program for wildfire combat

Interior Dept. moves forward on drone program for wildfire combat

The Interior Department is embarking on a first-of-its-kind program that will use unmanned aircraft systems, better known as drones, during emergency situations.

The department announced Tuesday that it will sign four contracts with U.S.-based companies that will give Interior the ability to use "fully contractor-operated and maintained" small drones to aid in wildfire operations, search-and-rescue missions and other emergency situations in the U.S.

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“This contract reinforces our commitment to partnering with industry to provide our employees with the latest technology in carrying out their responsibilities as stewards of our nation’s public lands while also ensuring their safety is paramount,” Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeSanders tests his brand in Florida Overnight Energy: Court orders EPA to enforce chemical safety rule | Dem says Zinke would 'sell' his grandkids for the oil industry | EPA reportedly poised to unveil climate rule replacement Washington governor says Zinke would 'sell his grandchildren for the oil industry' MORE said. “This capability is key to implementing our new and aggressive approach to combatting the threat of large wildfires."

The $17 million contract will help supplement the manned firefighter fleet by operating in conditions dangerous to first responders, such as dense smoke situations.

Infrared sensors placed on the drones will additionally provide the department the opportunity to collect and analyze the effectiveness of wildfire suppression and retardant.

The effort is a collaboration between Interior and the Agriculture Department's Forest Service.

The U.S. experienced a number of deadly wildfires last year that left hundreds of people displaced and many injured. Wildfires in Montana, as well as in San Jose and Santa Barbara, Calif., were exacerbated by drought. Other high-profile fires occurred at Yosemite and Glacier national parks.

Some have called for the use of drones to help firefighters and search-and-rescue teams be more strategic when battling flames.

Last September, Zinke issued a wildland fire directive, which asked all bureaus to adopt "more aggressive practices" to battling wildfires.

Interior is also looking into using the small drone technology to help with scheduled burnings.