Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS)

UASs go by a variety of names; 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 Systems can be found in:
Operational Procedures Memorandum (OPM) 11-11.

Ranger holding python

Unmanned aerial vehicles and thermal imaging—NPS has been working with USGS and the University of Florida to test small, remotely operated airplanes and heat-detecting sensors for use in detecting pythons in the Everglades. These technologies may be useful to detect and aid in the capture of pythons in their natural habitats.
—photo Bob DeGross

Unmanned Aerial Systems

Image as seen by the pilot

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, subject to the conditions and exceptions described below. This action must be taken by superintendents no later than August 20, 2014.”

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

Unmanned Aircraft and Fire Management Activities

On August 15, 2014, 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 – Unauthorized Unmanned Aircraft System Flights Threaten Firefighter Safety and Effectiveness of Wildfire Suppression Operations


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 Interior, Aviation Management Directorate (glossary link) (DOI-AMD) 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), US 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.

Raven A in the air.

NPS Agents Flying Heads Down

Computer view of position and status data

Raven A—Live Downlink of Rx Fire, Position and Status Data


In the fall 2009 flight training at the Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, Department of Defense firefighters lit a prescription burn (glossary link) in range land near the Raven flight training area. Student pilots were able to fly close observation with visual and infrared cameras to document hot spots, vehicles, people igniting fires and wild horses and pronghorn antelope in the area.

The Raven was able to operate in smoke, rain, snow and nighttime limited visibility environments where operation of a manned helicopter or fixed wing aircraft would have involved significant risk. Pilots were able to maneuver into relatively close proximity of wildlife and persons on the ground to observe and record their actions without detection.

The Raven A was designed for wartime missions to provide a lightweight (4.5 pounds / 52" wingspan) hand launched, real time, ground linked video and infrared camera platform for small infantry units to identify and track nearby hostile forces and protect base perimeters. While the initial concept for use of the Raven by NPS was to observe Drug Traffic Organization (organized crime syndicates) marijuana cultivation sites before and during raids, the potential for public safety and resource monitoring missions is limited only by the imagination; theoretically it could be used to enter hostile or hazardous situations and provide real time aerial observation of active shooters, lost or stranded persons, fire activity, flooding conditions, landslides and avalanches or other situations.

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 sUAS imagery would prove invaluable to incident commanders. NPS works closely with AMD to assist in the development of policy and guidelines for implementation of as yet undetermined sUAS activities. In addition, NPS continues to work with our BLM and USGS associates to explore the potential capabilities of sUAS for new and innovative tasks.