Virginia takes the lead nationally to team drone operators with localities
State envisions having a list of vetted companies to provide their services
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.
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.