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The Drones Are Coming. Is Your Government Ready?

The list of potential public-sector uses is long and growing. But they present some procurement challenges.

A drone flying over a wildfire.
It's no secret that drones have already soared well beyond the realms of the military and hobbyists. New commercial uses for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are being found every day, from cell tower inspections to agricultural applications to media coverage. Two and a half million drones were sold in 2016, and the Federal Aviation Administration expects the number of commercial drones to increase tenfold by 2021. That kind of growth is likely to be true as well for non-military uses at all levels of government.

For government, UAVs present not only an opportunity but also a procurement challenge. Given the rapid evolution of both the technology and the regulatory environment, purchasing a drone is a far cry from buying police cruisers, desktop computers or office furniture. With these complexities in mind, the National Association of State Procurement Officials (NASPO) recently published guidance for its members as they move into the new world of UAV procurement.

One reason such guidance is needed is that drones have so many potential and differing uses for government. Public safety is certainly going to be high on the list, for everything from traffic monitoring to surveying storm damage to prison surveillance to assessing how best to extinguish a fire. In wildlife management, UAVs can help track animal populations and migration, and they can monitor for illegal hunting. Drones can help with safety inspections of power lines, pipelines, roads and bridges. They can be invaluable for hurricane and tornado research.

So as the list of potential uses continues to grow, what should government procurement professionals keep in mind? Here are some highlights from NASPO's guidelines:

• Determine what federal, state and local laws and regulations govern the use of UAVs in your area.

• Keep in mind that buying lead times for drones are short. Most units are mass-designed and delivered ready to fly. Nevertheless, an RFP for a UAV should include a detailed explanation for the application for the aircraft, the type and quantity needed, the desired timeline for delivery, and performance and quality specifications.

• Think ahead to ensure that the equipment is appropriate to the use. For example, the quality of the onboard camera should be carefully scrutinized based on what task the UAV will perform.

• Safety should always be a top priority. UAVs purchased by governments should have the ability to detect and avoid other aircraft and should have appropriate running lights. UAV pilots will require training to safely operate them.

• Remember that UAVs can be hacked just like any other piece of wireless technology. Cybersecurity protocols must be taken into consideration, especially for the data link that connects the drone with the operating ground station and controlling pilot.

• Consider options that may enhance value. Some suppliers of UAVs also offer training, maintenance, repair, warranties and other value-added services that can be bundled together.

Without question, the versatility of UAVs holds the potential to make a range of government functions more efficient and potentially safer. Getting the procurement right will go a long way toward realizing that high-flying future.

Executive director of the National Association of State Procurement Officials
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