How does the USGS use unmanned aircraft systems?

The USGS Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Project Office and the Office of Aviation Services are leading the development and testing of UAS scientific and resource management technology across the Department of the Interior in coordination with the other bureaus.

Department of the Interior UAS capabilities 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, supporting search and rescue, and supporting related land management and emergency response missions. The Project office is also working across the federal government with NASA, NOAA, DHS and DoD, and with academia, on the evaluation of UAS capabilities.

Examples of USGS Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) missions include: 

  • Estimating migratory bird populations (sandhill cranes and sage grouse)
  • Monitoring impacts of dam removal and erosion on rivers (Elwha and Glines dams, and Missouri River)
  • Surveying surface mines (West Virginia)
  • Locating and mapping abandoned solid waste (Mojave National Preserve)
  • Assessing park boundaries while detecting invasive species (Haleakala National Park).
  • Rapid response volcano monitoring (Kilauea)

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Does the USGS need flight approval to operate unmanned aircraft systems?

Yes, approval is required for operating unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). The USGS receives flight approval from the Federal Aviation Administration prior to every UAS mission. The official document is referred to as a Certificate of Authorization and Waiver. It is the approval process by which the Federal Aviation Administration allows for public...

What does the USGS do with the information, pictures, and video collected by unmanned aircraft systems?

All data collected by USGS unmanned aircraft systems are processed and used in support of mission-specific research objectives. The vast majority of the resource management and scientific data will be archived for long-term use and placed in the public domain. Learn more: National Unmanned Aircraft Systems Project Office

What restrictions are in place to protect citizens' civil liberties and privacy concerns related to unmanned aircraft systems?

The USGS is a bureau within the Department of the Interior (DOI), which requires the following actions related to privacy: Operating Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) primarily over DOI lands. Obtaining written permission from landowners when UAS operations need to launch and/or land on their property. Following standard Federal Aviation...

What training do pilots of USGS unmanned aircraft systems receive?

Training for USGS Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) operators is provided by the Department of the Interior Office of Aviation Services . The training has been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration and is specific to the types of UAS that the department operates. The training provides operators with the skills and knowledge necessary to...

What types of unmanned aircraft systems does the USGS use?

The Department of the Interior (and USGS) Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) operational strategy emphasizes small systems with a combined aircraft and payload weight of less than 55 pounds. These small UAS are designed to support short (90 minute) missions and operate on rechargeable batteries or gasoline. This strategy recognizes that any given...

Why does the USGS use unmanned aircraft systems?

Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) provide an affordable solution when the USGS needs "eyes in the sky" but doesn’t have the budget to maintain a fleet of aircraft or to obtain commercial imagery. The USGS relies on a variety of remotely sensed data. UAS can provide a range of remote sensing data types, from aerial images to hyperspectral or...
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Date published: July 3, 2019

Drones on Ice: Scientists Take to the Air to Study Suicide Basin

Juneau Empire recently posted an article about the work of measuring water and ice levels in Alaska's Suicide Basin using drones that University of Alaska researchers have been doing with help from the Alaska CASC. 

Date published: May 13, 2019

A Tale of Two Drones

Unmanned Aircraft Used to “Sniff” Methane Gas Escaping from Thawing Permafrost

Date published: May 13, 2019

2019 USGS Unmanned Aircraft Systems Aquatic Airshow

A USGS Unmanned Aircraft Systems Aquatic Airshow field testing and demonstration event occurred 4/30/2019 - 5/2/2019 on the Saco River near Biddeford, and the Androscoggin River near Lewiston in Maine, USA.

Date published: March 29, 2019

USGS Uses Drone to Measure Methane Escaping from Arctic Permafrost: Low-Cost Method Fills Gap in Detection Techniques

The USGS has developed a low-cost technique for making detailed measurements of methane escaping from thawing permafrost in coastal Arctic bluffs.

Date published: November 6, 2017

Video shot from drones yields details about changing landslide on California’s Big Sur coast

On October 12, 2017, USGS unmanned aerial systems collected video footage of the Mud Creek landslide, which buried California State Highway 1 under a third-of-a-mile-wide mass of rock and dirt on May 20, 2017.

Date published: May 24, 2017

Igniting a New Trend in Public Safety

U.S. Geological Survey scientists and partners are taking technology to the next level, using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), commonly called drones, to acquire both fire intensity and emissions data during prescribed burns.

Date published: March 16, 2017

Flagstaff Scientists Look to Drones

The Arizona Daily Sun published a piece about the use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) by USGS researchers in Flagstaff.

Date published: July 31, 2016

Hot off the Press! Great Balls of Fire!

The USGS Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit in partnership with the Nebraska Intelligent MoBile Unmanned Systems Lab (NIMBUS) and the Applied Complex Adaptive Systems Lab have designed a drone prototype that drops balls filled with combustible material that ignites fire as part of prescribed fire management.

Date published: June 1, 2014

Cranes and Drones: Strange Airfellows?

When U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) biologist Leanne Hanson answered a “call” in 2009 for interested USGS scientists to learn to operate drones, she knew it would be uplifting work—literally. Recently, as a newly trained and certified pilot, she spent a week flight-testing a small unmanned aircraft system, also called an sUAS1 or simply a drone, as a non-invasive means of conducting aerial...

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Photo of USGS scientist operating drone with ground-penetrating radar system over a river
May 6, 2019

USGS tests drone-based ground-penetrating radar

USGS hydrographers collect tens of thousands of streamflow measurements every year. In-water work by personnel is one of the most dangerous aspects of USGS hydrologic studies, especially during high-flow conditions. In May 2019, USGS continued testing of a light-weight, self-contained ground-penetrating radar (GPR) system that can be mounted on a small drone. We are

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Attribution: Water Resources
March 27, 2019

Testing New Drone Technology to Measure Floodwaters

A USGS crew used new drone technology to test and evaluate new technology to measure water speed from the air without touching the water. This drone footage was taken on the Missouri River at Hermann, Missouri on March 27, 2019. Scientists compared these new method results to the conventional way of taking measurements from a boat. 

This work is a part of a national

December 31, 2018

Hovering Above—UAS’ Role in the 2018 Kīlauea Volcano Eruption (AD)

The 2018 Kīlauea Volcano eruption marked the first time the federal government used Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) to assist in an eruption response in the United States. The UAS were used to survey areas otherwise inaccessible or too hazardous for field crews or manned aircraft, collect multiple types of data, and provide 24/7 real-time situational awareness at Kīlauea

September 25, 2018

First mission: USGS UAS monitors gas emissions at Mount St. Helens —AD

On September 25, 2018, a team of three scientists based at the USGS–Cascades Volcano Observatory conducted the first-ever USGS-led Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) campaign at Mount St. Helens. The UAS survey was conducted with the permission and coordination of the U.S. Forest Service Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.

The team used a multi-rotor UAS (“

Drone shot looking at brightly colored red and orange lava flows
July 2, 2018

Kīlauea Volcano — Drone Over Lava Channel

USGS Mavic Pro drone image of the fissure 8 lava channel looking toward the vent. Overflows can be seen as incandescent spots beyond the channel margins. Drone flights and resultant imagery help scientists

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An unmanned aircraft or drone flying.
November 10, 2016

An unmanned aircraft or drone flying.

An unmanned aircraft or drone flying.

August 25, 2016

Public Lecture Series — The New Eyes in the Sky

Putting Drones to Work for Scientific Research
By: Jeff Sloan, Geographer, Project Leader — USGS National Unmanned Systems Project Office

  • Why is there so much interest in unmanned technology?
  • What are the rules to legally  y within the National Airspace?
  • How does this technology increase safety, lower costs, and
March 25, 2015

Drone Survey

USGS revolutionizes data collection by surveying a river channel within the Redlands area using a drone.