Unmanned Aircraft Systems

NASA’s Ikhana unmanned aircraft heads out on a wildfire imaging mission in California in 2007. The U.S. Forest Service is highly interested in new technologies and believes there is potential to use Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) to support a host of natural resource management activities, including forest health protection, wildfire suppression, research, recreational impacts, and law enforcement.

The agency has been exploring the potential to use UAS for several years, and it has tested different UAS platforms during wildfires, prescribed fires, and in other natural resource management settings.

U.S. Forest Service policy stipulates that UAS must be considered the same as manned aircraft, in terms of acquisition, approval and carding of pilots and aircraft, inspections, maintenance, avionics, training, and operations.  However, the agency currently does not have a formal UAS program in place, which is needed to ensure appropriate, safe, and cost-effective use of UAS.  The U.S. Forest Service has chartered an interdisciplinary UAS Advisory Group to develop guidance for the use of UAS and associated technologies to support operational needs throughout the agency.     

The UAS Advisory Group has been tasked with several items, including conducting a thorough review of agency policy, making policy recommendations, completing a risk assessment, and developing a strategic plan. After the UAS Advisory Group has completed these tasks, U.S. Forest Service leadership will determine the future of a UAS program for the agency.

U.S. Forest Service UAS Policy

Forest Service Manual (FSM) 5713.7

Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) must be considered the same as manned aircraft, in terms of acquisition, approval and carding of pilots and aircraft, inspections, maintenance, avionics, training, and operations.  All FSM 5713.7 and FSH 5709.16 references to manned aircraft include UAS.

Any Forest Service leased, contracted, or owned UAS will require a Certificate of Authorization (COA) from the FAA before operation.  COAs will be coordinated through the Forest Service Technical Contact as identified in the National Aviation Safety and Management Plan.

Use of other agency UAS which have approved COAs will require prior approval from the Washington Office Assistant Director, Aviation.  Aircraft and pilot approval for cooperator UAS will adhere to existing cooperator aircraft and pilot approval policy in FSM 5712.4 and 5713.43.

Hobby or Recreational Use of UAS on National Forest System Lands

Forest Service illustration about unmanned aircraft systems saying \"if you fly, we can't\"The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has regulatory authority over all airspace, including recreational use of airspace by model aircraft (See FAA Advisory Circular 91-57) .  The U.S. Forest Service does not have the authority to establish any additional regulations regarding where UAS can or can’t be flown. 

Individuals and organizations that fly UAS on National Forest System lands must follow FAA guidance – FAA guidance stipulates that UAS not interfere with manned aircraft, be flown within sight of the operator and be operated only for hobby or recreational purposes.  The FAA also requires model aircraft operators flying UAS within five miles of an airport to notify the airport operator and air traffic control tower.  The FAA’s model aircraft provision apply only to hobby or recreation operations and do not authorize the use of model aircraft for commercial operations. For more information, watch the “Know Before You Fly” video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XF5Q9JvBhxM&feature=youtu.be and visit the Know Before You Fly Website at http://www.knowbeforeyoufly.org/  

Individuals and organizations that fly UAS for hobby or recreational purposes may not operate them in areas of National Forest System lands that have Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) in place, such as wildfires, without prior approval from the U.S. Forest Service.

The FAA provides guidance on “Flights Over Charted U.S. Wildlife Refuges, Parks, and Forest Service Areas”. Per this guidance, federal laws prohibit certain types of flight activity and/or provide altitude restrictions over “designated Forest Service Areas.”  UAS are considered to be  "mechanized” equipment and cannot take off and land in designated Wilderness Areas on National Forest System lands.

Click here for additional information about responsible use of UAS on National Forest System land.

Individuals or organizations that do not comply with FAA guidance in flying UAS on National Forest System lands will be reported to the FAA.    

Unmanned Aircraft Systems - Privacy, Advisory Group, UAS Frequently Asked Questions