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Unmanned aircraft can be a viable public safety tool but uncertainties and privacy concerns have held them back.
There are several other ways UAVs could be used:
- Forest protection and management: UAVs could help monitor the condition of forests, determine the effectiveness of reforestation efforts or assess damage from events such as fires, landslides or floods. They could also help detect and map damage from insects, diseases and invasive plant species.
- Watershed management: UAVs could monitor the condition and boundaries of watersheds and sample air quality at various altitudes.
- Fish, wildlife and plant management: UAVs could help map habitats and survey fish and wildlife populations. They could also monitor the populations of threatened and endangered fish, wildlife and plant species.
- Law enforcement: Authorities could use UAVs to help detect activities like narcotics production and timber theft.
- Post-fire response: UAVs could help map burn severity, evaluate debris flow and monitor vegetation recovery and ongoing flooding threats to downstream communities.
If UAVs provide such great help to public safety agencies at such a low cost, why aren’t they being more quickly adopted? There are several uncertainties and concerns regarding their use, and these have slowed some agencies’ efforts.
One issue is safety.
This is one issue that the Forest Service’s advisory group is looking at, Jones said. “Our top priority in the Forest Service is safety,” she said. That includes the safety of firefighters and other agency employees, as well as the safety of the public.
“They can pose a risk to people on the ground if one of those is flying overhead and a communications link is lost,” said Jones. “We’ve got to make sure that we can fly them safely, given the other aircraft that are often flying in fire environments.”
There are other details to be worked out, as well, Jones said. “We’re trying to define the mission requirements.” A lot of missions can also be performed by manned aircraft, and the agency wants to determine when officials would turn to UAVs and who would operate them.
There’s also some uncertainty about regulation. The FAA is working on rules that would allow commercial use of certain UAVs in some circumstances.
Another big concern is privacy. The Seattle Police Department last year abandoned a program to use UAVs while it was still in the planning and testing phase because of public concerns about privacy. It ended up giving the UAVs to the Los Angeles Police Department, which has said it won’t use them until the city decides on terms for their implementation into operations.