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Unmanned Aerial Systems or more commonly referred to as (UAS), have the potential to impact fleet management for public agencies and are transforming the fleet industry throughout the United States. As the UAS industry grows and matures, the demand and diversified uses of UAS increases, the need to manage these programs and manage the vehicles that support these programs will change and need to adapt to the new reality.
When people think of UAS, they tend to think of and focus on the aircraft and the capabilities of the equipment in the air. Effectively understanding UAS is critical to understanding the mission, technological, and support equipment necessary to fully support the UAS mission capability. UAS is not just an aircraft or (drone). UAS is all of the associated support equipment, control station, data links, telemetry, communications and navigation equipment, audio and visual systems, sensors, and data storage systems that are necessary for operation.
The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development began using UAS equipment in 2016 with UAS assets conducting airport runway protection zone assessments. The uses have matured since then to include bridge inspections, right-of-way inspections, embankment analysis, highway flood management analysis, emergency operations, and public relations opportunities. What we have found is that along with operating the equipment, there is the priority need of transporting the equipment to the mission location. Many times our staff has only hours or minutes to respond to a situation or a requested mission and be able to produce the desired product or deliverable.
A couple of the more important lessons learned that we found during our pilot program was the need for rapid deployment and battery charging for the aircraft. Many times during the pilot program period, the UAS team needed to deploy assets and personnel quickly due to emergency situations. We found the necessity for prepositioned and complete carrying cases with aircraft and equipment partially assembled. Further, solutions were needed for support equipment to be accessed quickly and deployed in a timely manner. The UAS team would need multiple trips from the office to the fleet vehicle to on-board this equipment which took significant time and coordination. Additionally, the fleet vehicle was not properly equipped to accept and orderly store the aircraft and support equipment efficiently for field use. Finally, we discovered that the ability to charge the aircraft batteries in the field and on the go was extremely important. Depending on the mission, many batteries or a longer duration flight was often necessary to complete the mission and produce the deliverable causing longer charging times in the field which led to some inefficiency during the mission.
Initially, the office did not realize or see the need for the fleet vehicle to be equipped to handle many of the non-mission specific basics. The option to have multiple build-outs of a fleet vehicle to include charging ports, display capabilities for real-time video, takeoff and landing surface, and organized interior options will be key to UAS operation and rapid deployment for our Department and operational capabilities into the future.