Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS)

The unmanned aircraft system AltiGator civil drone OnyxStar Fox-C8 XT in flight
The unmanned aircraft system — AltiGator civil drone OnyxStar Fox-C8 XT — in flight.

Wikipedia photo credit

The term "unmanned aircraft" means a device that is used or intended to be used for flight in the air without the possibility of direct human intervention from within or on the device. This includes all types of devices that meet this definition (e.g., model airplanes, quadcopters, drones) and that are used for any purpose, whether recreation or commerce. The term also includes associated UAS components that the pilot or system operator may need in order to operate or control the device (e.g. cameras, sensors, communication links).

UAS Usage

The number and use of unmanned aircraft throughout the United States has dramatically increased in recent years. Concern for unmanned aircrafts' impact on park resources and compatibility with the NPS mission led to a review and the creation of formalized policies regarding their use as outlined in a June 2014 Policy Memorandum. The role of the Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division has been to help ensure that UAS, when use is permitted, are operated in a way that minimizes impacts to natural, cultural, and historic resources.

In general, launching, landing, or operating unmanned aircraft in units of the National Park System is prohibited. However, there are exceptions where use is allowed subject to NPS approval:

  • The use of model aircraft for hobby and recreational use is allowed if authorized in writing prior to the date of the June 2014 NPS policy memorandum for locations and under conditions (i) established by a superintendent; or (ii) issued under a special use permit. Model aircraft are defined in Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Advisory Circular 91-57 and Section 336 of the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2012.

  • Administrative use of unmanned aircraft is allowed if approved in writing by the NPS for such purposes as scientific study, search and rescue operations, fire operations, and law enforcement. Administrative use includes the use of unmanned aircraft by (i) NPS personnel as operators or crew; (ii) cooperators such as government agencies and universities that conduct unmanned aircraft operations for the NPS pursuant to a written agreement; and (iii) other entities, including commercial entities, conducting unmanned aircraft operations for the NPS, provided such entities are in compliance with all applicable FAA and Department of the Interior requirements.

  • Activities conducted under a Scientific Research and Collecting Permit are allowed where the permit authorizes launching, landing, or operating an unmanned aircraft and is approved in writing by the NPS. The online research permit system is available here.
  • Activities conducted under a special use permit are allowed where the permit authorizes launching, landing, or operating an unmanned aircraft and is approved in writing by the NPS.

Guidance on using UAS for administrative and research operations is outlined in the NPS Reference Manual 60, Aviation Management, including a link to the Appendix 7 administrative use approval form.
Best Practices for UAS Operations

The Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division has developed a set of best practices for avoiding impacts to natural, cultural, and historic resources when using UAS. The best practices were developed with input from NPS staff in areas of natural resource, cultural resource, and fire and aviation management, and informed by an interagency group of members from the U.S. Geological Survey, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

poster image shows ghosted drone and aerial images of land and a whale

2017 Symposium: Training on the Use of UAS for Natural and Cultural Resource Science and Stewardship

UAS can provide a safer, highly versatile, more reliable, and less expensive alternative to traditional means of collecting data in national parks, often with much less environmental impact.

In May 2017 the Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division hosted a training symposium on the use of UAS for stewardship and research of natural and cultural resources in national parks. Symposium presenters outline effective strategies for integrating UAS technologies into NPS stewardship and science programs, including a review of regulations and policy, platform and payload technologies, specific resource missions, data management, and lessons learned.

Webinar recordings of speakers and PDFs of presentations are available by contacting the division. More information about the speakers and topics is available here.

Additional UAS Resources

Federal Aviation Administration

U.S. Department of the Interior, Office of Aviation Services

NPS Fire and Aviation Management

Last updated: January 4, 2018