Vir­ginia takes the lead na­tion­ally to team drone op­er­a­tors with lo­cal­i­ties

State en­vi­sions hav­ing a list of vet­ted com­pa­nies to pro­vide their ser­vices

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - FRONT PAGE - BY GRA­HAM MOOMAW

As drones whir their way fur­ther into everyday life, Vir­ginia is mov­ing to stream­line the pur­chas­ing process for state agen­cies, lo­cal gov­ern­ments and uni­ver­si­ties that want to use un­manned aerial ve­hi­cles but might not know where to start.

Vir­ginia is tak­ing a lead­ing role in a na­tional con­tract­ing so­lic­i­ta­tion, or re­quest for pro­pos­als, meant to pro­duce a list of vet­ted drone op­er­a­tors that pub­lic of­fi­cials can call on for a wide va­ri­ety of mis­sions, from as­sist­ing law en­force­ment and fire­fight­ers to fly­ing over disas­ter ar­eas af­ter hur­ri­canes, tor­na­does and earth­quakes.

In its first-ever drone-re­lated so­lic­i­ta­tion, the state’s Depart­ment of Gen­eral Ser­vices is invit­ing bids from in­ter­ested drone com­pa­nies through a na­tional pro­cure­ment pro­gram de­signed to help states team up to find pri­vate sec­tor con­trac­tors.

Vir­ginia is the lead state on the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of State Pro­cure­ment Of­fi­cials so­lic­i­ta­tion, but Cal­i­for­nia, Con­necti­cut, Ok­la­homa, Mon­tana and Utah

have signed on as par­tic­i­pants. The dead­line for pro­pos­als is June 7. Con­tracts are ex­pected to be awarded by Oc­to­ber, with mul­ti­ple ven­dors se­lected to serve dif­fer­ent ge­o­graphic re­gions.

Al­most 50 ven­dors par­tic­i­pated in a pre-pro­posal meet­ing last month. The re­quest asks would-be con­trac­tors to es­ti­mate their prices for a hand­ful of mis­sion sce­nar­ios, but the doc­u­ment does not give a to­tal es­ti­mate for how much the state is pre­pared to spend on drone flights.

Among the pos­si­ble drone uses en­vi­sioned in the state’s re­quest are:

Help­ing fire­fight­ers put out fires by cap­tur­ing aerial im­ages of ac­tive fires, pos­si­bly through the use of in­frared or heat de­tec­tion tech­nol­ogy.

Sup­port­ing law en­force­ment with sur­veil­lance, re­con­nais­sance, ac­ci­dent sup­port and search-and-res­cue. The so­lic­i­ta­tion notes that law en­force­ment mis­sions might be “highly sen­si­tive” and might re­quire con­trac­tors to sign nondis­clo­sure agree­ments. It will be up to law en­force­ment, not the con­trac­tor, to en­sure the mis­sion is le­gal.

In­fra­struc­ture sup­port mis­sions, such as sur­vey­ing land and roads, in­spect­ing bridges and tun­nels, and mon­i­tor­ing slopes.

Keep­ing an eye on forests, farm­land and wildlife by check­ing for in­va­sive species, as­sess­ing crop health, and track­ing an­i­mal habi­tats and breed­ing pat­terns.

As­sist­ing pub­lic re­la­tions teams by tak­ing pho­tos and video for mar­ket­ing pur­poses.

Sev­eral state agen­cies al­ready have pur­chased drones, and the over­ar­ch­ing con­tract won’t pre­vent other agen­cies or in­sti­tu­tions from buy­ing drones and train­ing in-house op­er­a­tors.

Pete Stamps, di­rec­tor of DGS’s Divi­sion of Pur­chases and Sup­ply, said his office con­sid­ered gear­ing the con­tract to­ward pur­chas­ing drones out­right, but de­cided to out­source the work. “We deter­mined that we would be bet­ter off to do it as a ser­vice and en­sure that those we con­tract with are re­spon­si­ble for mak­ing sure they are prop­erly li­censed,” Stamps said.

It will be up to in­di­vid­ual gov­ern­ment agen­cies to de­cide if and how they want to take ad­van­tage of the con­tract, which means the mis­sions listed don’t nec­es­sar­ily re­flect spe­cific plans that will be put into ac­tion.

“We’re try­ing to in­cor­po­rate as many sce­nar­ios as we can,” Stamps said.

Ac­cord­ing to pro­cure­ment records, state agen­cies, uni­ver­si­ties and com­mu­nity col­leges spent at least $318,000 on drones within the last year.

Sev­eral Vir­ginia col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties are con­duct­ing drone re­search and test­ing. Last week, fed­eral reg­u­la­tors se­lected a team from Vir­ginia — led by re­searchers from Vir­ginia Tech — as one of 10 par­tic­i­pants in a drone ex­per­i­men­ta­tion pro­gram that will keep Vir­ginia at the fore­front of the emerg­ing tech­nol­ogy.

In 2015, a drone de­liv­ered med­i­cal sup­plies to the Re­mote Area Med­i­cal Clinic in Wise County, a break­through hailed as the first pack­age ever de­liv­ered via drone.

In South­west Vir­ginia, the Vir­ginia Depart­ment of Mines, Min­er­als and En­ergy uses drones for map­ping and to take pho­tos of aban­doned mine land that might be hard for a hu­man to reach.

When tor­na­does hit Hamp­ton Roads last year, the Vir­ginia Depart­ment of Emer­gency Man­age­ment sent drones to sur­vey the dam­age.

“They can fly the path of the tor­nado and ac­tu­ally get close-up im­ages of the prop­er­ties and struc­tures that are de­stroyed,” VDEM spokesman Jeff Cald­well said.

VDEM has also used its fleet of 10 drones to as­sist search-and-res­cue groups look­ing for miss­ing peo­ple.

State law sharply lim­its law en­force­ment drone flights with­out a war­rant, but pub­lic safety agen­cies are al­ready ex­plor­ing uses for the tech­nol­ogy. Law­mak­ers have made clear they don’t want to al­low Big Brother-es­que drone sur­veil­lance that al­lows law en­force­ment to watch from above with­out prob­a­ble cause.

Dur­ing the Gen­eral Assem­bly ses­sion ear­lier this year, the leg­is­la­ture loos­ened re­stric­tions on law en­force­ment drones by pass­ing a bill that will al­low po­lice to de­ploy drones to sur­vey ac­ci­dent scenes with­out a war­rant.

The Vir­ginia Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion is work­ing with state po­lice on the use of un­manned aerial sys­tems for ac­ci­dent re­con­struc­tion, said Jenny O’Quinn, com­mu­ni­ca­tions man­ager for VDOT. The depart­ment has tested some uses with traf­fic mon­i­tor­ing and bridge in­spec­tions, but has not integrated those into its stan­dard pro­ce­dures.

O’Quinn said other po­ten­tial fu­ture uses of the tech­nol­ogy in­clude vis­ual in­spec­tions of struc­tures such as lights on tall poles, mon­i­tor­ing of traf­fic and de­tour routes, dam­age as­sess­ments af­ter storms, con­struc­tion mon­i­tor­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tions. VDOT does not have un­manned aerial sys­tems and is likely to rely on ser­vice providers for most ap­pli­ca­ble uses, she said.

A House of Del­e­gates sub­com­mit­tee balked at a sep­a­rate bill that would have al­lowed po­lice to send up teth­ered drones — which can stay in the air in­def­i­nitely be­cause they have un­lim­ited power — to mon­i­tor large crowds.

In re­sponse to ques­tions from would-be con­trac­tors, state of­fi­cials said they didn’t know how many to­tal drones Vir­ginia agen­cies own or how many pub­lic em­ploy­ees have drone li­censes.

ALLEN JONES

Wil­liam Shuart of the VCU Rice Rivers Cen­ter and the Cen­ter for En­vi­ron­men­tal Stud­ies uses aerial im­agery and sur­vey-grade GPS units to cre­ate 3D mod­els of parts of the Mon­roe Park cam­pus.

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