Frequently Asked Questions


The term unmanned aircraft system (UAS) is used to describe an aircraft platform that can be flown remotely, i.e. without an on-board pilot. The term UAS also encompasses not only the actual aircraft platform, but all of the associated support equipment (i.e. system components) including the ground control station, communication links and navigational equipment, required to fly the platform. Actual flight will be performed by either a pilot on the ground or autonomously through use of a pre-programmed on-board computer.

Since UAS come in a vast array of sizes, ranging from the size of a hummingbird to the size of a 747, the FAA established the term small UAS (sUAS) to describe all platforms that are under 55 pounds fully loaded. This term has also allowed the FAA to establish guidelines and standards specifically aimed at the operations of these smaller systems.

For information about the sUAS at the National Project Office
The DOI has employed manned aircraft and satellite data collection for over 50 years to meet its research and land management mission over land that includes vast stretches in remote areas with severe terrain which can make data collection both dangerous and costly. The objective of the DOI UAS program is to evaluate the effectiveness of this new technology to meet data collection needs in areas where UAS may be better suited (achieving superior science, safety, savings).

Based on the belief that for many situations UAS technology can provide a safe, cost-effective and flexible approach for collecting data at resolutions down to a few centimeters, UAS capabilities will support a range of activities including scientific research, monitoring environmental conditions, analyzing the impacts of climate changes, responding to natural hazards, understanding landscape change rates and consequences, conducting wildland fire assessments, wildlife inventories, and supporting related land management and emergency response missions. But it should be noted that investigations to date have shown that UAS are most useful for data collection that covers relatively small areas, such as a wildlife refuge or national park, or augments data provided by manned aircraft or satellites.

For information about completed research missions
The DOI has decades of proven experience in the proper collection, use, control, and retention of aerial collected data from the many manned aircraft the DOI employs in accomplishing its missions. DOI employs the same data collection, use, control, and retention policies for its UAS flights as it does for its manned aircraft-supported missions.

All UAS missions are and will be in full compliance with federal laws and the DOI policies and procedures. Images collected with UAS sensors are handled and retained within industry standards, consistent with images collected with any of the DOI’s remote sensing systems. The UAS missions are subject to professional standards, codes of conduct, case law and with the public’s trust in mind.

The DOI has also taken the following actions related to an individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy:
  • Operating UAS primarily over public lands.
  • All operations must be in support of mandated missions of the DOI (i.e. proper use)
  • Obtaining permission from land owners if UAS missions are targeting specific activity over their lands
  • Following standard FAA-approved procedures for aircraft operations (including special use permits, range approval letters, and safety management systems)
  • Maintaining open and transparent UAS operations: upcoming UAS missions are listed on the Research Missions page and local press and landowners are invited to observe the operations, if appropriate
  • Any privacy concerns will be addressed in consultation with the Office of the Solicitor
  • Unauthorized use of an UAS will result in strict accountability
Images collected with UAS sensors are handled and retained within industry standards, consistent with images collected with any of the DOI’s remote sensing systems.

The DOI has decades of proven experience in the proper collection, use, control, and retention of aerial collected data from the many manned aircraft the DOI employs in accomplishing its missions. DOI employs the same data collection, use, control, and retention policies for its data collected by UAS flights as it does for its manned aircraft-supported missions.
Training for the DOI UAS operators is provided by the DOI Office of Aviation Services, has been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, and is specific to the types of UAS that DOI operators. The training provides operators with the skills and knowledge necessary to operate small UAS in the National Airspace System (NAS).

Flight approval for all USGS UAS flights fall within two FAA approval processes, Certificate of Authorization (COA) or DOI-FAA Memorandum of Agreement (MOA).

For more information read the Federal Aviation Administration Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Fact Sheet
The FAA sUAS Rule, also called Part 107, is the part of Chapter 14 of the FAA Code of Federal Regulations that provides specific guidance on the operating rules for sUAS in the National Airspace System (NAS). To summarize it allows commercial sUAS use without a Section 333 exemption when the conditions stated in the provisions are met.
Enactment of the sUAS Rule has not changed the process that USGS must use to get approval to fly sUAS in the NAS. However, the DOI may move to align with the new sUAS rules through modification of its Operational Procedures Memorandum in the near future.
No, but there are specific FAA guidelines that you must follow including:
  • Registration with the FAA if the aircraft weighs more than 55 pounds
  • All UAS flight must be a sufficient distance away from populated areas and manned aircraft operations (i.e. airports)
  • During flight the aircraft must be within visual line of sight of the operator at all times
  • The flight cannot be for commercial or business purposes (instead see Part 107)
  • If the aircraft weighs more than 55 pounds before flight it must be certified by an aero-modelling community-based organization
Yes, as long as all of the provisions outlined in the rule are followed and proper certifications of both the aircraft and operator have been accomplished.