MISSOULA -- Somewhere between fascination with the military’s vaunted Predator drones and fear of the public’s private drones over wildfire, the U.S. Forest Service is deeply entangled in the unmanned air force.

The Forest Service deals with all kinds of drones – research and recreational, large and small. Concern about collisions between private drones and firefighting aircraft prompted it to start the “If you fly, we can’t” campaign last summer.

Forest Service Fire and Aviation Management spokeswoman Jennifer Jones said firefighters have documented 25 incidents where private drones interfered with wildfire activity in 2015 alone. That helped prompt the Federal Aviation Administration to issue regulations requiring registration of all unmanned aerial systems weighing more than half a pound.

“These are only the incidents we know about,” Jones said in an email last week. “There could very well be more that we aren’t aware of. Locating the operators of these drones after they have been spotted in the air and land … has been very challenging. So the requirement to mark an identification number on the aircraft will be very helpful.”

But it is also experimenting with unmanned aerial systems to fly fire-mapping cameras and even full-sized water-dropping helicopters.

“We’ve been working with unmanned aircraft over the last 10 or 15 years,” said Robert Roth, the Forest Service’s regional aviation management specialist in Missoula. “That kind of technology was mostly used in military applications. But when the aircraft got smaller and more capable, that’s really been the change. There’s been a real big surge of interest in the last five years.”

Drones have been put into agency service mapping bug infestations in forests, 24-hour fire behavior monitoring, and even inspecting bridges. All those things also have been done with full-sized aircraft and on-board human pilots. Roth said studies still are underway to determine if the unmanned systems really have an advantage.

“There isn’t real, hard data validating that,” Roth said of the cost-benefit analysis. “You might think of an aircraft as the only investment, but there’s still a pilot that requires training. Plus you need a ground station, and software, and a warehouse to store it and all the other things that come with owning an aircraft. It’s hard to get real cost information for UAS. That’s why we’re conducting missions to see what it really costs to own and operate or contract one.”

At the same time, the Forest Service has faced challenges managing drone use on public lands. The National Park Service has banned drone flights on its public lands after some high-profile mishaps, including one crash into Yellowstone National Park’s Grand Prismatic Spring last year. The Forest Service already had a ban on drone use in wilderness areas.

That’s raised some hackles from hikers and boaters who see a double standard or imposition on free speech. If big airplanes are allowed to make scenic flights or even land on designated runways inside wilderness areas, how is a personal drone with a camera any different? Why is a camera in the hand OK but one on a drone violating the restriction on mechanized equipment?

Roth said the Forest Service follows the Federal Aviation Administration’s definition of an unmanned aerial system as an aircraft, subject to all the same rules as aircraft with human pilots inside. That includes limitations on altitude, access to remote airfields and harassment of wildlife, all of which come under existing Forest Service regulations for aircraft.

But it does bring up some interesting questions when a ski area gets involved. Roth said he’s fielded numerous queries about “follow-me” drones that link a camera-carrying copter with an autopilot transceiver worn on a person’s body. Several ski resorts in Canada rent these set-ups so skiers can video themselves as they carve the slopes. Many U.S. ski resorts lease their property from the Forest Service, and wondered if any special rules apply.

“There have been some privacy issues,” Roth said, “where paparazzi were filming movie starts in ski areas and it was a problem. It would also be a commercial activity. We’re looking at keeping them restricted to only certain runs, so you can notify people which runs have aircraft so they can avoid those areas if they want. The aircraft would also be geo-fenced so they can’t leave specific areas.”

Roth said the agency’s interest in using drones for its own purposes while trying to restrict private drone activity might seem like a mixed message. He compared it to a fire truck: While the emergency personnel can race through stop lights to reach an accident, private motorists shouldn’t be tagging along just because they’re in a truck too. But he acknowledged drones raise lots of new questions.

“Most other meetings we have are conducted in a logical fashion,” Roth said of the aviation management department. “But any meeting you go to and bring up UAS, it quickly swirls and goes to places where there aren’t complete answers yet.”

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