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Unmanned Aircraft Systems FAQs

What is a UAS?

Collectively, a UAS consists of an aircraft platform, sensor and communication payloads, and the ground control segment. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) policy identifies “Unmanned Aircraft (UA) as ‘aircraft’ flown by a ‘pilot’ regardless of where the pilot is located." The U.S. Forest Service has adopted the same policy.

What is the difference between UAS and “drones”?

The term “drone” no longer adequately describes the capabilities of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), which is the current wording used by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

What is the difference between a UAS and a model aircraft unmanned system used for sport and recreation?  Why can’t the U.S. Forest Service use the model aircraft standard?

Recreational use of airspace by model aircraft is covered by FAA Advisory Circular 91-57.  In 2007, the FAA clarified that the current FAA policy for UAS operations is that no person may operate a UAS in the National Airspace System without specific authority. For UAS operating as public aircraft, as UAS conducting missions for the U.S. Forest Service would, the authority is the Certificate of Authorization (COA); for UAS operating as civil aircraft the authority is special airworthiness certificates; and for model aircraft the authority is AC 91-57.

What is the U.S. Forest Service stance or regulations regarding hobbyist drones? Where is it OK to fly them? Where not? Why?

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has regulatory authority over ALL airspace, including recreational use of airspace by model aircraft, which is covered by FAA Advisory Circular 91-57. The U.S. Forest Service does not have the authority to establish any additional regulations regarding where a UAS can or can’t be flown.  However, recreational UAS must abide by Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) in place by the FAA over disasters such as wildfires. The FAA also has an advisory (AIM Section 4, 7-4-6) with suggested limitations for flight over Wilderness areas.  Unmanned Aircraft must abide with specifications identified through the FAA's Certificate of Authorization process which includes no flight over populated areas.

What steps is the U.S. Forest Service taking to develop a UAS program?

An interdisciplinary UAS working group has been chartered to address guidance and use of UAS within the U.S. Forest Service. This group has been tasked with several items, including conducting a thorough review of agency policy, making policy recommendations, completing a risk assessment, and developing a strategic plan. After these tasks are completed, U.S. Forest Service leadership will determine the future of a UAS program for the agency.

Are other federal agencies using UAS?

Yes, other federal agencies, including agencies within the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of the Interior, have already started using UAS.  Agencies within the U.S. Department of the Interior could soon use UAS to support wildfire management activities.

What type of UAS would the U.S. Forest Service use?

We are currently developing a strategic plan that includes agency mission requirements. Those identified requirements will determine the type and capabilities of the UAS.  Potential aircraft will then be reviewed in the context of life cycle costs and risk assessments to determine their feasibility for use in the agency.

What types of data can UAS collect?

UAS can collect real-time video, ortho-corrected imagery, stereo imagery, image mosaics, KML/KMZ files, and derived products (maps – invasive plant locations, fire progression; DEM, flight path, fire radiative heat release, fire rate of spread).

How could the U.S. Forest Service use UAS?

The U.S. Forest Service could potentially use UAS to accomplish a wide variety of agency missions:

Forest Management – UAS could be used to map and monitor the general condition of forest stands; to sample and estimate biomass and other forest product quantities; to determine the effectiveness of vegetation treatments, reforestation efforts, and achievement of forest management objectives; to monitor timber harvest unit boundaries; to identify road locations; and to assess damage from extreme weather events, such as wildfires, landslides, hurricanes, floods, ice storms, and high winds. 

Watershed, Soil, and Air Management – UAS could be used to map and monitor the general condition of watersheds; to sample air quality at various altitudes; to photograph lichens in remote sites; to determine the effectiveness of watershed restoration projects; and to establish and monitor watershed boundaries.

Forest Health Protection – UAS could be used to detect, assess, and map damage caused by insects and diseases; to inventory regeneration after insect infestation; and to detect populations of invasive plant species and monitor eradication efforts.

Fish, Wildlife, and Plants – UAS could be used to map fish and wildlife habitat; to survey fish and wildlife populations; to monitor populations of threatened and endangered fish, wildlife, and plant species; and to monitor the effectiveness of habitat restoration efforts.

Research – UAS could be used to gather a wide variety of data and images for studies, such as forest canopy condition, movements of migratory birds and bats, plant community distribution, smoke plume measurements, and ash and soil conditions.

Recreation – UAS could be used to monitor trail, general landscape, and dispersed recreation site conditions; and in search and rescue efforts.

Law Enforcement – UAS could be used to detect illegal activities, such as narcotics production, timber theft, and archaeological site vandalism.

Fire and Aviation Management – UAS could be used to detect fires; to assess fire potential; to prioritize fires; to monitor prescribed fires and wildfires being managed to achieve resource objectives; to monitor fire behavior, rate and direction of spread, and flame length; to identify roads and other potential fire breaks, water sources, and potential fireline and helispot locations; to measure temperature, wind direction and speed, and relative humidity; to locate spot fires and values at risk ahead of fires; to facilitate radio and data communications between dispatch, the fireline, and the incident command post; to acquire infrared/Electro Optical [daytime color camera] images; to monitor air quality; and to evaluate the effectiveness of fire management actions.

Burned Area Emergency Response/Post-Fire – UAS could be used to conduct post-fire assessments, to map soil burn severity, to conduct debris flow evaluations, to monitor post-fire vegetation recovery to assess how long flooding threats continue for downstream communities, and to understand fire effects.

Does the U.S. Forest Service own any UAS?

The U.S. Forest Service purchased 3 small hand-launched platforms several years ago to conduct tests and evaluations. There are no plans to operate these platforms.

What are some of the benefits of using UAS?

UAS have the potential to enhance the cost effectiveness, safety, quality, and timeliness of many data gathering and image acquisition missions on National Forest System lands by reducing the time and risks associated with accessing remote areas with limited roads and trails and hazards, such as snags. UAS have the capability to cover large landscapes and acquire large amounts of data and images at appropriate intervals and scale, for long periods of time, and in difficult aviation conditions, such as smoke, night, low light, and dust.

Has the U.S. Forest Service used UAS in the past on any wildfire management missions?

In August, 2013, an MQ-1 Predator operated by the California Air National Guard was deployed on the Rim Fire in northern California to provide real time information to fire managers 24/7.  The NASA Ikhana platform was used in mapping a number of prominent fire incidents in 2007, 2008 and 2009. The U.S. Forest Service has tested a number of different UAS platforms over the years, most are in the small to medium size class (smaller than 16 foot wingspan), in controlled burns and non-fire situations, and largely deployed in military controlled air space.

How would UAS be different than traditional infrared?

Traditional infrared flights are conducted on an incident once daily. In addition to providing a comprehensive aerial view of an incident, UAS affords fire managers flexibility to acquire data at any time and at a localized scale. For example, an incident commander could ask for immediate deployment of a UAS system when tactical intelligence on fire behavior is urgently needed and it could provide continual observations for long durations of time. It is anticipated that these missions would be launched, operated, and retrieved locally by a 2 person team trained in the use of UAS systems, similar to how the military conducts small UAS missions in hostile environments.

Has the U.S. Forest Service ever applied for a Certificate of Authorization (COA) to fly a UAS with the FAA?

Yes, the U.S. Forest Service has previously applied for and received a few COAs from the FAA. The purpose of the COAs was to evaluate small UAS capabilities, not for operational deployment on wildland fires. The U.S. Forest Service provided input for a COA from the FAA while assisting NASA when operating the Ikhana over several active fires in the western United States.

What has the U.S. Forest Service done so far to explore the use of UAS?

The U.S. Forest Service has investigated the utility of UAS technology to support wildland fire reconnaissance and other resource mapping applications. The bulk of this evaluation has been done through our collaboration with NASA Ames Research Center, the USGS UAS Program Office, and through small contracts with the vendor community.

Has the U.S. Forest Service used other types of UAS's besides the Ikhana for wildfire missions?

The U.S. Forest Service has tested a number of different UAS makes/models over the years, most in the small to medium size class (smaller than 16 foot wingspan). These systems have been tested only in controlled burns and non-fire situations, largely in military air space.