And now for something completely different….
Agency mulls best use for drones 7 years after purchase — documents
Emily Yehle, E&E reporter
Published: Tuesday, December 3, 2013
The Forest Service is still unsure how to use two drones it purchased seven years ago, with officials most recently considering deploying them to fight fires, according to documents released today by a liberal watchdog group.
The agency initially planned to use the “Sky Seers” to spot drug trafficking — such as marijuana fields — on public lands. But it has been unable to comply with Federal Aviation Administration regulations, and the $100,000 drones now sit unused in a California facility.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility says the purchase was misguided — a waste of money for equipment that was never justified during a time when the agency needed more officers. Today, the group released the results of a Freedom of Information Act request on the status of the 7-year-old drones.
The documents shed a little light on the Forest Service’s plans, with the most recent action being the creation of an Unmanned Aircraft Systems Advisory Group in 2012. The task force sits within the Forest Service’s Fire & Aviation Management division, indicating that the agency may use the drones for firefighting rather than law enforcement.
The group’s charter outlines 10 tasks, including developing a strategic plan for deploying the drones.
In a statement, PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch characterized the task force as secretive and criticized the fact that its charter does not specifically include a review of privacy concerns.
“The Forest Service’s use of unmanned aircraft for fire management would not suffer in the least by being aired with the public,” he said. “The Forest Service would benefit from greater public buy-in before its drones take flight.”
It’s unclear when, if ever, those drones will be used. FAA regulations require, among other things, a certified pilot, something the Forest Service’s law enforcement division was unable to come up with. The FAA is also still working on rules to allow drones for general use in unrestricted airspace.
A Forest Service spokesman did not immediately return a request for comment today. But in the past, agency officials have emphasized that the FAA released regulations after the Forest Service purchased the drones, putting up new roadblocks the agency did not foresee.
The agency has also said the 4-pound drones cannot identify individuals, with one document released by PEER describing their abilities as “functionally similar to a camera looking at a very large parking lot with stick figures moving around.”