Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Commissioner Amanda Beal stands with Jeff Currier, regional forest ranger for the Maine Forest Service, as he operates a Maine Forest Service drone. Credit: Courtesy of the Maine Forest Service

Embracing new technology, the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands and the Maine Forest Service are in the process of purchasing up to 20 drones to help monitor and map the state’s natural resources.

The project is being funded by a $10,792 grant recently awarded from the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund to the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. The money will be used to purchase the drones, as well as software and training that the department needs to operate these remote-controlled, pilotless aircrafts.

“This technology can be used by our department staff in a number of ways to really help reduce costs, save time and improve the accuracy of our work,” said department Commissioner Amanda Beal.

The department plans to use the drones to track changes in forest composition and health caused by a multitude of factors, including forest pests, plant diseases, logging activities and natural disasters. In addition, the drones will likely be used to detect changes in water quality and monitor compliance on conservation easements. Plus, the Maine Natural Areas Program — a program of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry — plans to use the drones to monitor long term changes in ecological reserve wetlands in response to climate change.

Furthermore, the department plans to use the drones to produce aerial videos and photos to be used in outreach and promotional materials, offering the public a new perspective of state parks and public lands.

“We have incredible resources here in our state parks and public lands,” Beal said. “Being able to make some videos and show people what we have to offer if they come to visit these beautiful places — I think that it will really help bring attention to all of these resources that we have here for everyone to use.”

This isn’t the first time that the state has used drones. While the Maine Warden Service has not adopted this technology, the Maine Forest Service has been using drones for about two years to locate forest fires and survey areas for certain forest pests, such as emerald ash borers. Prior to receiving the grant, the Maine Forest Service owned five drones, Currier said. This project will boost the number to 15, and the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands will receive their first 10 drones.

In the future, Currier anticipates the state’s drone squadron will grow.

“Ten years from now, I believe every ranger will have a drone,” Currier said. “We’ll look back and it’ll be like when we didn’t have GPS. We’re going to look back at the days we didn’t have drones and say, ‘Wow. Those were the dark ages.’”

With new technology comes new challenges. The use of drones is a controversial topic, one that has people concerned about infringements on privacy and impacts on the quality of outdoor experiences. To address these issues, the state has created a number of policies, including a policy that forbids drone use in state parks, historic sites and boat launches without a special permit or guidance from an approved law enforcement agency. In addition, a Maine statute forbids the use of drones to aid in hunting.

Furthermore, the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry is developing drone natural resource use protocols. And above any state protocols, the department must adhere to Federal Aviation Administration rules and regulations for unmanned aircraft systems, which has specific regulations for public safety and government employees.

“We’re very aware and also concerned about people’s constitutional rights and make sure we’re not infringing on those,” Currier said. “FAA has a whole section of regulations — the rules of the road, if you will — for drone operators. We study those and follow those to the letter.”

These regulations for drone operators include not flying a drone beyond your visual range and not flying a drone higher than 400 feet above ground level, Currier said.

“We need to be very specific in how we use drones, respecting landowner privacy rights and making sure that we’re following all regulations and best practices around using this technology,” Beal said. “We’re very cognizant of that. We want to make sure our staff have adequate training before they have the opportunity to use this tool.”

The department has already started purchasing the drones, Currier said. They’re made by DJI, a world leader in designing camera drones. One has an infrared camera, capable of detecting heat signatures and flying at night. The other drones feature cameras that are more basic, he said.

In the near future, these battery-powered machines will likely be used in place of boats, helicopters and other gas-powered vehicles to monitor hard-to-reach places. Yet when asked if these remote-controlled aircrafts will in any way replace staff or reduce the number of jobs offered by the department, Beal said, “No. Definitely not.”

“We really see it as a way to supplement what we’re already doing,” she said. “And doing it in ways that are less costly and use less fuel — all of these things that we’re trying to work on, especially with an eye on climate change.”

Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...