On February 9 we reported that four agencies in the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) have a total of 182 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles owned by the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, and the Office of Aircraft Services. Most if not all of them were obtained at no cost from military surplus. In fiscal year 2015, 46 UAV missions were flown within the DOI for a total of 140 hours.
After checking with the U.S. Forest Service we found that they have no UAVs. In one respect that is a surprise since the DOI has a crapload of the aircraft, seemingly far more than they could ever use. But knowing how conservative the USFS is in trying new concepts in their fire aviation program it could be expected that other land management agencies are breaking the new ground here.
The USFS has a small amount of exposure to UAVs and Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS). They cooperated with the DOI and private companies last year in “Unmanned Aircraft Technology Demonstrations” on the Paradise Fire in Olympic National Park in Washington and the Tepee Spring Fire on the Payette National Forest in Idaho. They also observed as Lockheed demonstrated the use of a remotely piloted K-MAX helicopter at the Lucky Peak Helibase east of Boise, Idaho and worked with experts from the University of Alaska Fairbanks who used a UAS to inspect a bridge on the Chugach National Forest.
Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the USFS, told us the agency “is working to integrate UAS in furthering the agency’s mission”. In addition to watching others operate systems in 2015, the USFS appointed an acting UAS program manager and established a UAS Executive Steering Committee. The agency created an interdisciplinary UAS Advisory Group in 2012.
About specific plans to use UAS in the foreseeable future, Mrs. Jones said:
The Forest Service is in the planning phases to contract a UAS to conduct a forest health protection mission in the southwest in 2016. The U.S. Forest Service is interested in new technologies such as UAS and takes a deliberate approach to ensure that the agency adopts them in an appropriate, safe, and cost-effective manner when they are the right asset to help the agency accomplish its mission. Progress may seem slow, but a significant amount of foundational work is being accomplished and the agency is moving ahead.
The agency is currently developing a strategic plan that includes agency mission requirements. Those identified requirements will determine the type and capabilities of potential UAS. Candidate aircraft will then be reviewed in the context of life cycle costs and risk assessments to determine their feasibility for use.
The Forest Service recognizes some areas where UAS could potentially be useful:
- Forest management
- Watershed, soil, and air management
- Forest health protection
- Fish, wildlife, and plants
- Law enforcement
- Fire management
- Burned area emergency response after a fire