The Department of Defense has been flying drones for years, but they’re certainly not the only part of the U.S. government to use them. The Department of Interior in particular has been using large 3DR Solo and fixed-wing vertical takeoff and landing drones extensively — for various types of data collection, land management and emergency response missions. DOI started exploring the unmanned aerial systems in 2004 when it used a drone to get data during a Mount St. Helens volcanic event, then evaluated broader use of the technology and launched operational test missions in 2010. Today DOI is second only to Department of Transportation in scope of UAS activity, with 12,000 flights in 2017.

DOI categorizes the missions it uses drones for by what they call the 4 S’s:

sensing (science),

safety (reducing risk to life, limb, or property),

service (delivering superior benefits), and

savings (missions involving drones require less time and fewer resources).

These categories are a useful way for agencies and organizations to categorize their drone activities and measure return on investment accordingly. This is particularly important for organizations considering innovation through drones, so that they can justify the investment. Consider each category:

1. Sensing: Drones can be used to remotely measure countless metrics, depending on the sensors and other equipment onboard. For example, bridge inspection: The right drone can assess corrosion or weakened parts of the deck, substructure, superstructure, and supports as well as identify cracks in concrete, using multiple cameras and sensors to capture different types of data.

· ROI can easily be measured by comparing the quantity of data collected and speed of collection with drones versus through traditional data collection techniques (by people and/or stationary equipment).

2. Safety: Drones add value in industries or fields where they can replace humans in dangerous jobs. Emergency response is a key area: Using drones for search and rescue in difficult terrain, for example, or responding to wildfires, hurricanes and other natural disasters. Police also use drones to track dangerous criminals or investigate unpredictable crime scenes in a safe manner. Beyond law enforcement uses, drones used for infrastructure inspections in hard-to-reach or hazardous places can reduce or eliminate the need for risk to life and limb.

· ROI can be measured by comparing casualties when drones vs. humans carry out a specific mission.

3. Service: This category includes delivering better or more data, especially to provide additional or higher-quality services. Drones can provide value by collecting different types of data and/or data that couldn’t be accessed by other means. As an example, drones enable DOI to carry out wildfire response at night, while helicopters can only operate eight hours a day. This extended window for surveillance and operations is critical for work that is time-sensitive, giving responders a much better chance of containing wildfires.

· ROI can be measured by the effectiveness of a program to achieve a mission that depends on information collected. This new technology can also create new services, meaning that the effectiveness of an organization has increased as well.

4. Savings: Drones can save time, money and other resources in many industries. DOI reports that their missions using drones generally require only 1/7th the time of other missions and require 1/10th the resources — what other tool can have impact of that magnitude? In certain industries, the drones themselves can replace more expensive equipment. One area not to forget is the opportunity to collaborate with partners, leveraging shared resources and research to multiply the savings from a drone program.

· ROI is easy to measure in terms of savings by simply comparing time required and resources expended with drones versus without.

Sensing, safety, service and savings can help organizations in many industries categorize and measure the ROI of their drone programs. Even better, these categories can be assessed before launching a drone program to help determine the goals and expected benefits. Other categories can be added or altered; DOI is even considering adding two S’s, sustainment and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math), to represent new areas in which they’re beginning to use drones. Determine the metrics that tell the story of your drone program, and measure and report accordingly.

Dawn Stevenson is a senior consultant at Evans Incorporated and a member of PropelUAS, a division of Evans Incorporated. To contact her, email

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