MISSOULA — The U.S. Forest Service says it has no drone aircraft, but plenty of other people have little UFOs buzzing over the trees in Western Montana.
Last week, Forest Service officials said they’ve dropped plans to use unmanned aerial systems — commonly known as drones — to survey forest fires because of clashes with Federal Aviation Administration rules. While some national forest firefighters in Alaska touted the remote-control planes’ ability to map forest fires in thick smoke, their legality proved a limitation.
“Getting FAA approval to fly one is a lengthy process,” Forest Service Northern Region spokesman Phil Sammon said Friday. “It takes too long to make it practical for a two- or three-week occurrence.”
FAA rules require a drone in U.S. airspace to be in visual range of its pilot at all times. That sets up a Catch-22 problem where if you want to remote-control fly a drone into a smoke column too thick for human pilots to see through, you must still send up a human pilot to keep an eye on the drone.
Sammon said the agency has used aerial surveys in the past for forest health studies, as well as fire mapping and spotting. But those activities required long hours of flight time, which even the best non-military drones can’t manage. Traditional pilots in traditional planes got those jobs.
Some have speculated drones are used to find marijuana farms hidden in forest stands. Sammon said he knew of no such activity, although he admitted if Forest Service law enforcement officials were doing so, they weren’t saying anything about it.
Missoula County sheriff’s spokeswoman Paige Pavalone said she knew of no county or state law enforcement agencies using unmanned aircraft for surveillance or traffic control. She wondered if any land survey companies were using them for aerial boundary plotting. But calls to several surveying and engineering firms in Missoula found no one with knowledge of using the planes that way.
If you have seen a drone in Western Montana, “it’s more than likely people out having a good time,” said Brian Culp, the radio control expert at Missoula’s Treasure Chest hobby shop. “There’s a couple of guys around here who fly big camera ships, and guys who do first-person video with planes that can fly a mile away or better. One’s got virtual-reality goggles so it’s like you’re flying in the plane.”
The toys range from scale replicas of historic fixed-wing airplanes to freaky six-rotor helicopters that can hover with heavy video cameras. Culp said some ham radio operators have licenses to use their high-powered transmitters to fly radio-control aircraft up to 60 miles.
A club in Missoula has about 50 members who regularly fly from a field near the former Smurfit-Stone Container millsite. Other groups fly from fields in Victor or the Mineral County Airport in Superior.
Culp said introductory models cost around $300, while the heavy-duty ones run $10,000 or more.
“We do carry one drone,” he said. “It works on a Wi-Fi signal so it only goes about 50 meters. You can fly it with an iPad or iPod Touch.”