Many civil Federal agencies are investigating how Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) technology, especially small UAS, can be applied to their missions. Remotely sensed data and the information derived from these data have played a key role in the scientific and operational activities of many agencies. The rapid development of UAS technology, particularly smaller, light-weight, less expensive sensors that require less power, have provided new opportunities to acquire aerial data repeatable over an area at a low cost and more safely than with other methods. UAS also provide access to hazardous or inaccessible areas with fewer disturbances to flora and fauna, and are ideal for imaging transient events, such as floods, or providing rapid response. Both rotary and fixed wing UAS bring different capabilities to meet Federal requirements, especially when combined with other remote sensing and in situ data sets. These digital data sets can be archived to create a baseline for future multi-temporal studies.
UAS are helping Federal agencies meet the challenges across a wide range of applications, especially when a quick, safe approach is required to collect data for traditional applications, such as mapping or to support emergency response activities. The flexibility of operations and relative low cost to purchase and operate UAS enhances the ability to track long-term landscape and environmental change, and promotes the integration of these data with in situ and satellite data sets. As UAS technology advances, longer duration flights, etc., and more complex sensors, such as ground penetrating radars, become available for these platforms, coupled with new regulations that allow nighttime flights, swarms, and BVLOS flights, the future applications of UAS in the Federal community is limitless.
In addition to the direct involvement by Federal agencies in UAS, they have also promoted the awareness and employment of these platforms by funding other organizations, especially universities, convening workshops, making presentations, and publishing reports and scientific articles. Federal agencies have also been foremost in developing standards for UAS use and regulations for safety and privacy. It is evident that UAS will continue to expand in utilization and that Federal agencies will maintain leading roles, but also increasingly promote this technology in State, local, and Tribal governments, and the private and commercial sectors.
This chapter will focus on the different applications that have been and are being developed across the Federal government with this rapidly changing technology. The types of applications include monitoring wildland fire, agriculture, coastal and river studies, cryosphere, geologic and mining, mapping and surveying, public safety, marine, water and hydrology, wildlife monitoring, climate change, damage assessment, and forestry. Not since the introduction of the airplane or GPS has a technology had such a disruptive or transformational impact on the remote sensing community.