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Dun, Dun, Dun, DRONE! USGS is up in the Air

Drones. The word sends shivers down the spines of some Americans, but these remotely piloted aircraft are poised to make huge inroads in the national airspace. “Despite the fact that most people link unmanned aircraft systems with intelligence agencies and the military, the federal government's drones user base extends well beyond spies and soldiers, reports Federal Times.

"The Interior Department's USGS owns a fleet, valued at $15 million, of 20 T-Hawks (20-pound drones made by Honeywell) and 15 tiny hand-launched, remote-control Ravens made by AeroVironment.

Although USGS has spent around $1 million on unmanned-aircraft systems (UAS) operator training and sensor systems, it paid nothing for the drones themselves – they were given to them by the Army."

One of those drone operators is Jeff Sloan. He is the project lead with the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Project Office at the U.S. Geological Survey. Sloan told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program about how USGS started using drones in 2009.

In 2009, the Redstone Arsenal Army donated a surplus of old drones to USGS, who is always looking for new ways to map terrain. The agency felt the drones would be a good opportunity to fit into smaller and more remote places. Traditionally, USGS has used satellites or aerial overflights with manned aircraft.

The devices are hand-launched and are only able to carry a five-to-ten ounce camera. “We use five-pound airplanes that were used by the soldiers in war zones,” said Sloan. “They were used to look over the hill at the bad guys. Now USGS is using the technology to map changing landscapes.”

Sloan explains that in one example, “We were looking at doing some elk surveys for the Fish and Wildlife Service. They wanted a census count. We had to keep the drones in our line of sight and stay below 400 feet based on regulations. We used a grid pattern that pinged the camera to take a picture every so many seconds. Once we got that story overlap, we were ready to make a base aerial photo, similar to what you see on Google Earth.”

Drones are especially useful considering the Department of Interior covers lands in incredibly remote areas – think very tight canyons. “We can get lower than trees,” said Sloan. “That’s important in places like Washington where the trees are quite tall and it’s fairly dangerous to fly in there if you were in a manned aircraft. But we can maneuver them into fairly tight places and get up these canyons.”

Though drones have proven useful for agencies like USGS, there are hurdles to more widespread adoption. One major impediment to faster drone adoption is the Federal Aviation Administration. Charged with regulating the nation's airspace, the agency is naturally reticent to open the drone floodgates.

Federal Times reported, “In 2012, Congress tasked the FAA with developing a plan for safely integrating UAS into the national airspace by Sept. 30, 2015, and until that plan is completed, civilian agencies must obtain special FAA clearances to use drones. Public operators, including civilian agencies and numerous universities, held 613 active clearances, called certificates of authorization, as of April 8.

Besides the trouble of obtaining authorization from the FAA, agencies must also follow rules that, although well-intentioned, can neutralize the benefits of UAS – like copious amounts of training.

“We have to either fly or be on a simulator every 90 days, and we also get check rides, just like a normal pilot would,” said Sloan. “The problem with the whole process is it would take up to six months to get someone trained and certified, so we need a six-month lead time.”

The FAA also requires pilots to keep in close proximity. FAA rules require operators to maintain line-of-sight contact with the vehicles, which Sloan said limits the drones' utility.

But despite the tough guidelines, Sloan said USGS is following the guidelines quite well. “We can almost do all our projects. If it falls close to an airport, that would be a limit and then if we want to go over 400 feet for some reason, that’s also a limit. But there are some case by case basis where they will allow us to go above that.”

The USGS success is causing other agencies and departments to look into drones. “We probably get four or five calls a week, talking about prospective projects. A lot times they’re tapping us because we’ve worked with the FAA successfully,” said Sloan.

Sloan is excited to share lessons learned, “I think our biggest role is to jumpstart agencies. We hope to be able to show them some real world examples on how this is pretty effective.”

USGS is also very active in sharing the information that the drones collect. “We want to be as transparent as possible,” said Sloan. “We always notify when we fly over an area. It’s usually over federal land, but if it is over private land, we have to contact each private landholder. And normally 99% of the time they’re very cooperative and they’re quite excited about it, and we share our data as much as we can, and we put everything out on the website, even our calendar and what we’re going to be doing.”

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