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Three men standing together look on at a drone they’re controlling
Information icon Jason Duke (middle), R4 GIS Coordinator and John Edwards (right), R4 IT Specialist for north Florida, practice flying the 3DR Solo UAS with DOI Office of Aviation Services instructor pilot Steve Stroud (left). Photo by USFWS.

Unmanned Aircraft Systems take flight in Southeast Region

Have you heard the latest buzz? It’s not a rumor.

That buzz is the sound of four whirring propellers that are part of the newest addition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (Service) aircraft fleet. The Service recently purchased 35 3DR Solos, or drones. Also called unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), these drones have been used for more than a decade by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Geological Survey.

The many possible uses of UAS make them an attractive tool for tasks that might be too expensive for to traditional piloted aircraft, or that are too dangerous to risk a pilot’s life.

UAS have already been used for by the Service for wildfire detection and observation, invasive plant and animal monitoring and mapping, wildlife population counts, mapping coastal erosion, discovering illegal activity on public lands, and search and rescue operations.

A pilot readies a drone for take off on a beach with a docked boat.
Scott Bishaw, FWS remote pilot and R4 I.T. specialist for south Florida, runs through a pre-flight checklist before launching from a sandbar on the Altamaha River in GA. Photo by USFWS.

The Southeast Region blazed the way for the rest of the Service to become involved with the Department of Interior’s UAS program by training the Service’s first UAS remote pilot in January 2017. In addition to taking online training from the Interagency Aviation Training website, and passing a Federal Aviation Administration written exam, a prospective pilot must also attend a 32-hour, Department of Interior UAS Remote Pilot course. On October 23, the Service hosted its first Basic UAS Remote Pilot course at the National Interagency Fire Center, in Boise, Idaho. This class was comprised exclusively of Fish and Wildlife students, with five of those coming from the Southeast Region. There are now 19 DOI-qualified remote pilots in the Service, six of whom are from the Southeast Region.

Three men look on as a drone takes flight.
Wildlife refuge specialist Tom Plank (middle), from J.N. Ding Darling NWR, practices a take-off under the instruction of Mark Laker (closest), FWS remote pilot and ecologist from Kenai NWR. Photo by USFWS.

The offices that supported the training of these remote pilots all have their own projects for UAS, but several pilots also are available to support other offices. Some of the products remote pilots can provide are point/line/polygon (GIS) data and maps, photogrammetric products, orthophotos, 3-D terrain models, digital elevation models, real-time color/infrared/thermal imagery for situational awareness, recreation site photos/videos, wildlife surveys, and fire/accident investigation/documentation.

Two men, one holding a tablet computer look on at a hovering drone.
Jeff Lucas (left), a FWS remote pilot and instructor stationed in GA, trains Garrett Wilkerson (right), wildlife biologist from Santee NWR, on basic flight maneuvers. Photo by USFWS.

While the current model of UAS is not suitable for every project, UAS can be a valuable tool for the biologist, firefighter, law enforcement officer, or anyone else that could benefit from gaining a higher perspective. For more information on the UAS program, contact Stephen Earsom (, Southeast Region Aviation Manager, or Scott Bishaw (, UAS remote pilot.

An aerial photo taken from a drone shows an arid landscape.
Scott Bishaw, R4 IT Specialist for south Florida, became the first UAS remote pilot for USFWS upon completing the DOI Basic UAS Remote Pilot course in January 2017 in Safford, Arizona. Photo by USFWS.

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