FAA simplifies use of UAS for Department of Interior

A-20 UAS being launched BLM
An A-20 UAS being launched by BLM personnel in Alaska. BLM photo.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Department of the Interior (DOI) have reached an agreement that will greatly simplify the operation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) for certain uses. Previously the DOI and other agencies had to go through a lengthy and time-consuming FAA approval process before they could be used. Now there is much less paperwork and it appears that it can all be done within the DOI. This new process applies to aircraft weighing 55 lbs or less operating below 400 ft AGL and is limited to natural resource, scientific applications, and Search and Rescue efforts. Unfortunately, a UAS intended to be used for wildland fire still has to go through the tedious FAA approval process, after which the fire might be out.

The National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management both have web pages dedicated to their use of UAS.

Below is the information issued by the DOI Office of Aviation Services on January 23, 2014:



“United States Department of the Interior
Office of Aviation Services
Information Bulletin

Number: 14-03

Distribution: All DOI Employees

Subject: Issuance of the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA), dated Jan 23, 2014 between the Department of Interior (DOI) Office of Aviation Services (OAS) and the Federal Aviation Administration, UAS Integration Office (AFS-80) Regarding Operation of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems in Class G Airspace.


This Information Bulletin (IB) identifies and clarifies DOI Bureau responsibilities in the implementation and use of this MOA.

This MOA establishes a framework under which DOI Bureaus must operate to comply with FAA rules and procedures pertaining to small UAS (sUAS) employment. The scope of sUAS operations under this MOA applies only to systems weighing 55 lbs or less engaged in public aircraft operations below 400 ft AGL and is limited to natural resource and scientific applications, as well as Search and Rescue (SAR) efforts. All other UAS operations to include wildland fire and law enforcement operations must still comply with the FAA Certificate of Authorization (COA) application and approval process before flights can commence. See attached flow chart for a graphical depiction of the project approval process for DOI UAS operations.

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K-MAX helicopter converted to unmanned aircraft system

K-MAX, side
K-MAX at Custer, SD, July 10, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert

Of the 38 K-MAX helicopters that were built, eight are on exclusive use contract with the federal government for wildland firefighting. The U.S. Forest Service likes them because they feel like they can claim they are contracting with Type 1 helicopters even though they almost but not quite meet the minimum standards for Type 1 status, and for the fact that they are much less expensive than fully qualified Type 1 helicopters. The eight ships are operated by Central Copters, Heliqwest, Mountain West Helicopters, Rainier Heli International, Swanson, and Timberline.

Two other K-MAX helicopters have been converted for the military by Lockheed Martin Corporation and Kaman Aerospace Corporation into an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) capable of autonomous or remote controlled cargo delivery. Its mission: battlefield cargo resupply for the U.S. military. The two ships have flown more than 1,000 missions in Afghanistan and hauled more than 3 million pounds of cargo that would have otherwise been transported by trucks, which are vulnerable to roadside bomb attacks. One goal is to save lives by reducing Marines’ exposure to improvised explosive devices on cargo convoys.

The helicopters were sent to Afghanistan in November, 2011 for an initial, limited deployment, but have been extended several times. Naval Air Systems Command has decided to continue using the aircraft there indefinitely.

Unlike Predator drones, which are remotely piloted, K-MAX helicopters follow a pre-programmed route using Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates, and require human intervention only to get started.

It remains to be seen if UAS or UAV aircraft could feasibly be used on fires to drop water or deliver external loads.

K-MAX, front