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GROUNDED: US Forest Service spent thousands on drones it’s not allowed to use

Giuseppe Macri
Tech Editor

A recent Freedom of Information Act request revealed the U.S. Forest Service has spent $100,000 taxpayer dollars on drones it isn’t even allowed to use.

The two SkySeer drones were originally purchased to keep an aerial eye on marijuana growers in California — now the forest service doesn’t know what to do with them, according to forest policy website.

Federal Aviation Administration regulations ban the domestic use of drones without a certified pilot, specific permission and without maintaining human eye contact on the drones deployed.

The forest service has neither, and can’t maintain eye contact with a drone underneath a forest.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the group that filed the FOIA request, said the purchase was an unjustified, misguided waste of money when the service should be spending money on hiring more officers.

The drones were purchased in 2007 and have sat unused in a California warehouse ever since. The FAA recently announced it has a tentative five-year plan to implement more widespread domestic drone use. By then the SkySeer’s will almost certainly be outdated.

Alternate plans to use the drones in Montana and Idaho were considered briefly and dropped, and now the service has considered deploying them to fight forest fires.

To explore the option the forest service created the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Advisory Group in 2012, which said the service cannot use the drones for law enforcement purposes.

“The Forest Service’s use of unmanned aircraft for fire management would not suffer in the least by being aired with the public,” PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch said in a statement that accused the service of being too secretive.

“The Forest Service would benefit from greater public buy-in before its drones take flight,” Ruch said.

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