The U.S. Forest Service spent $100,000 in 2007 to buy two Sky Seer drone aircraft that they have not figured out how to use. The story was reported at Environment & Energy and was featured at a web site about forest planning. Apparently the agency purchased the drones seven years ago initially to be used for law enforcement, but FAA regulations and other problems have presented obstacles to the very expensive unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) taking to the skies.
The information came to light after the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility filed a Freedom of Information Act Request which revealed a little about how the USFS may use the drones. In 2012 the agency created an Unmanned Aircraft Systems Advisory Group within their Fire and Aviation Management division which may indicate a desire to use them to gather intelligence over fires.
An article in the Missoulian published May 26, 2013 was titled “U.S. Forest Service drops plans to use drones in Montana, north Idaho”. The reporter was told the agency had no drones. Below is an excerpt:
MISSOULA — The U.S. Forest Service says it has no drone aircraft, but plenty of other people have little UFOs buzzing over the trees in Western Montana.
Last week, Forest Service officials said they’ve dropped plans to use unmanned aerial systems — commonly known as drones — to survey forest fires because of clashes with Federal Aviation Administration rules. While some national forest firefighters in Alaska touted the remote-control planes’ ability to map forest fires in thick smoke, their legality proved a limitation.
“Getting FAA approval to fly one is a lengthy process,” Forest Service Northern Region spokesman Phil Sammon said Friday. “It takes too long to make it practical for a two- or three-week occurrence.”
FAA rules require a drone in U.S. airspace to be in visual range of its pilot at all times. That sets up a Catch-22 problem where if you want to remote-control fly a drone into a smoke column too thick for human pilots to see through, you must still send up a human pilot to keep an eye on the drone.
More information about the USFS drone program is at the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility website:
- Their original article in 2008 when the drones were purchased.
- A USFS document that outlines an initiative called “Situational Awareness Firefighting Equipment (SAFE)”, calling for a high-tech revolution in firefighting, including drones.
- Documentation for the sole source request to make the $100,000 purchase of the Sky Seer drones.