Remote sensing technologies on airborne scientific missions have added new depth and dimension to scientific observation. Yet they come at a cost – literally. Flying data-gathering missions for scientists, land managers, and hazard-mitigation agencies can cost upward of $30,000 an hour.
The U.S. Geological Survey is leading a federal initiative to make this high-quality science less costly, more accessible, and more environmentally friendly by using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) developed for the U.S. military to survey remote areas, monitor wildlife populations, and gather data on potential hazards on federal lands throughout the United States.
The science missions yield peaceful civilian uses for past-generation military technology. A roadmap adopted by the Department of the Interior (DOI) in 2010 tasks the USGS with developing certification, pilot training and proof-of-concept UAS missions through 2014 for its own USGS science centers and on behalf of federal agencies including the Office of Surface Mining (OSM), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the U.S. Forest Service. DOI’s Office of Aviation Services (OAS) is charged with developing aircraft airworthiness and operator certification, including training.
USGS scientists and pilots are now monitoring feral animals and invasive vegetation in Hawaii,shoreline erosion on the Missouri River on behalf of the Lower Brule Sioux people in South Dakota, spotting underground mine fires in West Virginia, and tracking the population density of sandhill cranes in Colorado. The missions save several thousands of dollars over equivalent human missions and are far safer than low-flying conventional aircraft.
Based in Denver, the USGS Unmanned Aircraft Systems Project Office has conducted missions all over the United States. The planes and their operators are subject to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and DOIOAS rules and regulations.
“The best pilots are the ones who grew up playing video games,” says UAS project manager Mike Hutt.