Forest Service not using $100,000 worth of drones

Sky Seer drone
Victor Torres of Chang Industry holds a Sky Seer drone used by the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department. It may be similar to those purchased by the USFS. Photo by Xeni Jardin April 6, 2006.

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:

8 thoughts on “Forest Service not using $100,000 worth of drones”

  1. Getting FAA approval is a lengthy process…….AWWWWW

    With that thinking how about a lot of those timber cuts and projects that suffer the same fate…….TOUCHE

    Unused? These guys want to get into the Airtanker Biz with this type of thinking?

    Maybe they can get the Coast.Guard or the US Air Force to fund the operation and air with the FAA to “speed up the process”

    More tongue and cheek aviation policy humor……

  2. Looking at that thing….I could have bought a better looking used Cessna 182 or 206 .

    That for 100K…..somebody saw the USFS coming to pay that….

  3. A really well equipped drone costs less than $4000.00 including camera, stabilization gear and flight googles. Wonder what happened to the remaining $96,000.00?

  4. $25,000 – $30,000 per unit plus training costs. Add in the cost of Octatron’s NetWeaver extended range interface, the $100,000 price tag seems on the mark.

  5. Might be on the mark there, Ken

    Not using them for seven years, hoarding, collecting dust, whatever, sure seems like a case for some FW&A action

    With the FAA and their stand on these in the airspace….I fully realize what these aircraft can do in the hands of the uneducated, non flying, non FAA certificated personnel flying these things

    Yeah, I got it…….we are saving the aircraft while ” they are cheap” and build the program around the “ship.”

    Got it. Only the FAA will be granting the flying over USFS “owned airspace” which in reality is NAS.

    Maybe the USFS could spend the money on better things…….but since there many of these UAS/ UAV in theater by other operators, and since the USFS has been active with all these RFI’s, RFA’s, RFP’s, studies and spending dough on that….they could have already contracted the Predator as they did on the Rim Fire

    Nonetheless…..USFS spending money like drunken whatever’s, during the days of tight budgets and folks with already proven UAS knowledge.

    USFS…jack of all trades….master of what?

  6. It seems to me the USFS could take advantage of existing national airspace regs with respect to TFR’s. UA surveillance ops in a TFR should be possible even with today’s regulations. The USFS would have to figure out a safe air traffic separation scheme within a TFR.

  7. Bean

    I would imagine there would be no need to re crdeate air traffic separation in a TFR. There are already established aircraft separation established by the FAA.

    With that said, in the already bizzy environment of a smoky TFR….and with the intrusions levels……now we would like to increase the workloads of a task saturated environment with a 50 K to 100 K micro ship……

    NOW that will be ALOT of fun with the current levels of a llarge fire operation…..couple that with squirrelly fire and weather environment and then get that into the heavier aircraft environments

    Figuring a safe traffic environment will be a new exercise to write a 30 page plan over.

    Mitigation: Do not fly a 10 to 30 lb ship into fire environment into a wind N fire driven environment requiring heavier aircraft and more command and control issues!!!!!

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