The U.S. Forest Service is highly interested in new technologies such as UAS. There is potential for the agency to fly UAS for a host of natural resource management purposes, including wildfire management; disaster response; law enforcement support; forest health monitoring; research; and forest and range management.
The U.S. Forest Service has been considering and evaluating UAS for several years and has been working towards UAS integration aligned with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations as they are developed. The first time that the agency explored the possibility of using UAS to accomplish natural resource management missions was in 1996 during a prescribed fire on the Lolo National Forest in Montana. The U.S. Forest Service takes a deliberate approach to new technologies such as UAS to ensure that they are adopted in an appropriate, safe, and cost-effective manner when they are the right asset to help the agency accomplish its mission.
Over the last two years, the U.S. Forest Service has flown UAS to:
- Survey Superfund mining sites on National Forest System land in Oregon to provide data for monitoring, measuring, assessment, and planning for environmental engineers and geologists.
- Evaluate forest health conditions and woody biomass on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona where invasive pests, the spruce aphid and native bark beetles, have damaged vegetation for the past few years.
- Provide real time situational awareness to ground crews, and provide infrared imagery for maps and other products, on the North Fire on the Cibola National Forest in New Mexico.
- Conduct a bridge inspection on the Chugach National Forest in Alaska.
- Participate with the U.S. Department of the Interior in conducting “Unmanned Aircraft Technology Demonstrations” on the Paradise Fire in Washington and on the Teepee Springs Fire and at the Lucky Peak Helibase in Idaho.
The U.S. Forest Service has taken significant steps towards establishing a formal UAS program, which is needed to ensure appropriate, safe, and cost-effective UAS flights by the agency. These steps include appointing an acting UAS Program Manager; establishing a UAS Executive Steering Committee; and conducting test missions and evaluations.
The U.S. Forest Service interdisciplinary UAS Advisory Group, chartered in 2012, also continues to work to address guidance and use of UAS and associated technologies to support operational needs throughout the agency. The UAS Program Manager is currently working with the UAS Executive Steering Committee and the UAS Advisory group to review U.S. Forest Service policy, make policy recommendations, and develop a strategic plan for use of UAS by the agency.
The Forest Service is required to comply with all current applicable Federal privacy laws, regulations, and guidance and must establish and apply data safeguards. Protecting Personally Identifiable Information (PII) is one of the Forest Service’s primary focuses. The Forest Service has devised, and adheres to, a Code of Fair Information Privacy Principles; the agency’s web policy; disclosure of data collection and minimization practices; and independent audits.