Unmanned Aircraft (UAS)

UAS go by a variety of names; Unmanned Aircraft Systems, Remotely Piloted Vehicles, (RPV), Drones, Unmanned Aircraft, (UA), UnCommanded Aerial Vehicles, (UCAVs) etc. Regardless, UAS are considered to be "Aircraft" as defined by the FAA in 14 CFR Part 1.

Department of the Interior policy regarding guidance on the operation and management of Unmanned Aircraft can be found in:
Operational Procedures Memorandum (OPM) 11-11.

Helicopter, forest, and wildfire hotspots as viewed from above with infrared.

Unmanned aircraft (UAS) and wildfires—NPS worked with the Department of the Interior in Summer 2015 to test a small, remotely operated UAS with an infrared camera to detect hotspots on the Paradise fire in Olympic National Park.

Map of area with flight restrictions area overlaid.

Segregation of manned and unmanned aircraft on initial flights on the Paradise fire was achieved through the use of geographic fences.

Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems and the National Park Service

Current Status

On June 19, 2014, National Park Service Director Jonathon B. Jarvis signed Policy Memorandum 14–05, Unmanned Aircraft – Interim Policy. Its purpose was “to ensure that the use of unmanned aircraft is addressed in a consistent manner by the NPS before a significant level of such use occurs within the National Park System.” Each superintendent was directed “to use the authority under 36 CFR 1.5 to close units of the National Park System to launching, landing, or operating unmanned aircraft…” This policy is still in place and the public may not use unmanned aircraft in the national parks.

Read Policy Memorandum 14–05 – Unmanned Aircraft – Interim Policy

Unmanned Aircraft and Fire Management Activities

Over the past several years, there has been a rise in the number of public use of UAS on U.S. Forest Service and other non-NPS wildfire incidents that has grounded firefighting aircraft at critical times due to safety concerns.

On June 26, 2015, the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho released information related to firefighter safety as well as interference in wildfire suppression operations by unmanned aircraft.

Read the release – Agencies Urge Public not to Fly Drones Over or Near Wildfires to Prevent Accidents and Disruption of Suppression Activities

Man carrying UAS.

The ScanEagle was the UAS used on the Paradise fire in Olympic National Park

2015 Utilization

In late August 2015, an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) was utilized on the Paradise fire in Olympic National Park. The system was demonstrating possible applications in wildland fire management and suppression. UAS can supplement manned aircraft, especially at times of reduced visibility due to smoky conditions and at night when manned firefighting aircraft makes it difficult to fly.

The primary goal of the UAS on the Paradise fire was to gather infrared information. This information assisted fire officials in pinpointing the fires perimeter and identifying areas of intense heat. The extremely large old growth trees in the area of the Paradise fire created a thick canopy that made mapping the perimeter and observing hotspots from the air very difficult without infrared capabilities.

The operational demonstration had no direct cost to the government. It was one of a series of ongoing missions to further UAS use on wildland fire in national parks and is part of an interagency strategy for UAS integration into wildland fire support. The demonstration tested the capabilities and effectiveness of unmanned aircraft technology on wildland fires. The ScanEagle UAS that was flown on the Paradise Fire weighed approximately 50 lbs with a wingspan of 10.2 feet. The UAS was only operated within the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) temporary flight restriction (TFR) area that was lifted after the testing.

The ultimate goal for UAS use on wildland fire is to supply incident management teams (IMT) with real-time data products, and information regarding fire size and growth, fire behavior, fuels, and areas of heat concentration. The Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) allowed the use of their land for the aircraft launch and recovery site. Additional applications, such as search and rescue and animal surveys, may be explored.

During busy summer fire seasons, such as 2015, manned aviation resources are spread thin across the country and may be difficult to acquire. In addition to supplementing aerial resources, UAS are quieter than manned aircraft, use less fuel, and present a much lower risk to employees.

This was not the first UAS to be flown in the Olympic National Park. The park partnered with the U.S. Geological Survey in 2012 to monitor sediment transport in the Elwha River as part of the Elwha restoration project using a Raven UAS.

It is possible to picture a host of situations where rapid human deployment would be hindered by environmental conditions or simply deemed unreasonably hazardous, where use of real-time UAS imagery would prove invaluable to incident commanders. NPS works closely with the Department of the Interior to assist in the development of policy and guidelines for implementation of UAS activities.


In 2008, the US Geological Survey (USGS) at the Rocky Mountain Geographic Science Center recognized the potential for sUAS use in scientific monitoring and study. Of particular note was the need to enter active volcanoes to collect information without risking humans in helicopters.

Raven A in the air.

Raven A: Dugway Proving Ground 2009

At the same time, the Department of the Interior, Aviation Management Directorate (now called the Office of Aviation Services) had been coordinating the use of medium UAS to observe whale activity off the coasts of Alaska. In 2009 USGS was able to coordinate with the US Army, which was in the process of replacing the AeroVironment RQ-11A (“Raven A” drones) sUAS systems, with the Raven B and then later versions for their operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In October 2009 USGS opened the first formal DOI sUAS training session to USGS, NPS, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Forest Service, and AMD students. Two NPS Special Agents and a BLM Special Agent, all from California, were among the first DOI employees certified by DOI-AMD under US Army training protocols on the Raven A system, by the Aerodyne Corporation contractor.

Due to their near co-location and identical missions with BLM as well as the willingness to work with California-based USGS and BLM personnel, NPS Agents were issued two Raven A systems ( on loan from US Army to USGS) at the conclusion of the training.