Project applicants and permitting and funding agencies often gather extensive scientific data to support project evaluations under environmental laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and Endangered Species Act (ESA). With the implementation the new Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) Rule (Title 107) by the Federal Aviation Administration, the opportunity for industry, government, and non-governmental organizations to collect important environmental data previously unattainable due to safety, expense, or technology constraints is set to expand. These stakeholders are already reaping the benefits of conducting less intrusive and more in-depth wildlife surveys and other biological field work using UAS technology, and Title 107 will increase those opportunities. For a look at some of the latest UAS-assisted research projects by the United States Geological Survey (USGS), see http://rmgsc.cr.usgs.gov/uas/. These projects will broaden government agencies’ understanding of the environment and ability to develop appropriate management or mitigation plans based on reliable data.

As noted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in its Environmental Assessment evaluating the use of UAS for a prairie dog vaccination program in Montana, use of UAS reduces disturbance that would otherwise occur with traditional terrestrial methods like sending biologists to the site on foot or by all-terrain vehicle. In cases in which UAS has been proposed to replace manned flights that use fixed wing aircraft or helicopters, proponents have cited increased human safety, noise reduction, and cost savings as benefits of UAS. Even some of the environmental groups who frequently challenge agency and industry studies in the NEPA process have sought to take advantage of UAS technology for their own biological studies, touting the numerous benefits the technology affords such as minimized wildlife disturbance, safety for biologists, and more accurate survey data.

For example, UAS may be particularly valuable for activities in the Arctic, where conventional aerial surveys can be very expensive and dangerous to operate, but are needed to count and monitor various species of whales and other marine mammals. In a 2015 Environmental Assessment for the issuance of an Incidental Harassment Authorization (IHA) under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) to Shell Offshore, one mitigation measure specifically mentioned was the potential for using UAS rather than fixed-wing aircraft in conducting the surveys. Shell responded that it was actively pursuing such technology, but that the permitting process and available technology limited its ability to utilize UAS.

Now that the FAA has expanded commercial use of UAS through Title 107, permitting restrictions should ease for these types of applications. In addition, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) is conducting an ongoing study of UAS effectiveness in Arctic aerial biological surveys, which could further pave the way for companies to use the technology for wildlife surveying in the Arctic. The FAA’s actions, combined with the BOEM’s evaluation and the array of studies being conducted by the USGS, means that we can expect to see marked advances in UAS technology and its application to resource management issues that will serve to benefit the environment and all stakeholders.