USFS Drones Unused 7 Years After Purchase

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Agency mulls best use for drones 7 years after purchase — documents

Emily Yehle, E&E reporter

Published: Tuesday, December 3, 2013 (subscription)


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.”

4 thoughts on “USFS Drones Unused 7 Years After Purchase”

  1. The USFS, years ago, was the “black ops” air force for US Govt covert activities. The pilots who flew air tankers also flew night missions elsewhere in the world delivering covert support to off the record US involvement in other countries. That is how they got into the airplane trade trouble with the USAF surplus airplanes, the “sweetheart” deals for USFS air tanker contractors. And why we now don’t have a dependable contractor base and air support for fire fighting. That is why Evergreen Air, and others, got into that business of black ops support, and with our winding down of wars, those companies are going bankrupt. Perhaps the USFS was about to get into that field once again, and had second thoughts. They knew they would end required to put a Hellfire missile into an illegal dope grow camp.

  2. Interesting. In the 60’s the DOD conducted a very hush-hush testing of aerial application of defoliants (Agent Orange?) on titi on the Wakulla District of the Apalachicola N.F. in Florida. I recall that the those of us on the staff who knew were cautioned against discussing it. Naturally the local residents (forget the deer,bear, etc.) had no idea of what was going on. Wonder how much of this DOD-FS clandestine cooperation still exists ? If so, are EISs being prepared,? :-J

  3. I am sure that there are many useful ways to use two drones. They can be an effective method for gathering information and covering the grounds in a short amount of time. I think they need to find an effective way to utilize this type of equipment.


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