Before heading to the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest to fly a recreational Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) or drone, U.S. Forest Service officials ask pilots to comply with all Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations.
The FAA has regulatory authority over all airspace, including recreational use of airspace by UAS. Information on FAA’s UAS regulations is available at http://www.faa.gov/uas/.
When flying recreational UAS on National Forest System (NFS) lands, there are some restrictions that pilots should be aware of. Since UAS are considered to be both “motorized equipment” and “mechanical transport,” they cannot take off from, land in, or be operated from Congressionally designated wilderness areas.
“Designated wilderness provides opportunities for primitive types of recreation, which is a much needed contrast from our increasingly developed and mechanized world,” said Jamie Fields, Recreation and Wilderness Program Manager.
“Pilots should also refrain from flying recreational UAS in popular recreation areas for public safety and to allow others to enjoy their recreational experience,” added Fields.
Additionally, UAS should not be flown over or near wildlife as this can create stress that may cause significant harm and even death. Disturbance, pursuit, or harassment of animals during breeding, nesting, rearing of young, or other critical life history functions is not allowed, and may be in violation of a number of laws including the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
“If forest users want to use their UAS to search for or detect wildlife and fish, they need to follow state wildlife and fish agency regulations regarding the use of aircraft,” said Kris Boatner, Wildlife Program Manager.
Recreational UAS must also abide by Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) in place by the FAA over disasters such as wildfires. Fire agencies and FAA officials caution that aerial intrusions can unduly threaten lives, property, and valuable natural and cultural resources. Interference by UAS also may stop firefighting operations and cause wildfires to become larger and more costly.
To date this year, 13 incursions have temporarily shut down aerial firefighting operations on at least six occasions in seven states – California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Alaska, Minnesota, and Montana. In 2015, there were at least 20 documented instances of unauthorized UAS flights over or near wildfires in California, Colorado, Oregon, Utah, Wyoming and Washington. Aerial firefighting operations in these states were temporarily shut down on a minimum of 12 occasions and there were two cases of near misses with UAS.
Aerial firefighting aircraft, such as airtankers and helicopters, fly at very low altitudes, typically just a couple of hundred feet above the ground and in the same airspace as UAS flown by the public. That proximity creates the potential for a mid-air collision that could seriously injure or kill aerial and/or ground firefighters.
TFRs typically put in place during wildfires require manned or unmanned aircraft not involved in wildfire suppression operations to obtain permission from fire managers to enter specified airspace. The FAA, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Department of the Interior and other wildland fire management agencies consider UAS, including those used by the public for hobby and recreation purposes, to be aircraft and therefore subject to TFRs.
People should not fly UAS over or near wildfires even if a TFR is not in place because of the potential for accidents and disruption of suppression operations. Individuals who are determined to have interfered with wildfire suppression efforts may be subject to civil penalties of up to $25,000 and potential criminal prosecution.
To keep UAS pilots aware of flight restrictions, the FAA has developed an easy-to-use smartphone app called B4UFLY. The app helps unmanned aircraft operators determine whether there are any restrictions or requirements in effect at the location where they want to fly. B4UFLY is available for free download in the App Store for iOS and Google Play store for Android. The app is part of the “Know Before You Fly” campaign aimed at UAS hobbyists. For more information, visit http://www.fs.fed.us/science-technology/fire/unmanned-aircraft-systems.