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Notice of Intent to Prepare a Programmatic Environmental Assessment of the Nationwide Operation of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems

The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) proposes to conduct current and future small, unmanned aircraft system (sUAS; i.e., drone) activities nationwide in order to meet DHS mission requirements (Proposed Action). DHS is preparing a Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) to evaluate the potential impacts associated with the Proposed Action pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA; 42 United States Code [USC] §§ 4321 et seq.); the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) Regulations Implementing the Procedural Provisions of NEPA (40 Code of Federal Regulations [CFR] Parts 1500-1508); and DHS Management Directive 023-01, rev. 01 Implementation of the NEPA.

Unmanned aircraft (UA) are defined by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in 14 CFR Part 107 as aircraft operated without the possibility of direct human intervention from within or on the aircraft; small UA are those that weigh less than 55 pounds on takeoff, including everything that is on board or otherwise attached to the aircraft. sUAS are defined as small UAs and associated elements (including communication links and the components that control the UA that are required for the safe and efficient operation of the small UA in the national airspace system (14 CFR Part 107)). Typical sUAS have two primary components: the small UA and the ground-based control station (GCS), which is the human interface used by the remote pilot to control the flight path.

There are three primary types of free-flying UAs that can be used as sUAS: fixed wing, rotary wing, and hybrid models. Fixed wing UAs have a motor and are propelled horizontally, while rotary wing UAs have one or more propellors that lift the UA in a vertical direction. Hybrid models have both fixed wings and rotors. Rotary wing UAs may also be tethered, relying on a permanent link to the ground. A cable connecting the UA to the GCS supplies electrical power to the UA, and also transfers data from the UA. Tethered UAs have a more limited flight range than free-flying UAs and are only viable in a small operational area.

UAs can be remotely operated in three ways: manual navigation (i.e., by a human pilot via controller), GPS navigation (i.e., by pre-programming the UA to fly to a specified location or in a specified pattern), and autonomous navigation (i.e., by the onboard computer determining flight controls using only onboard sensors, as opposed to signals from a controller or GPS system). UAs vary in size with at least one dimension ranging from 20 inches to about 6.5 feet. These systems may include built-in or attachable elements such as cameras or other types of sensors, and except for tethered UAs, are typically powered by an onboard rechargeable battery.

Under the Proposed Action, DHS and its Components would continue to conduct sUAS activities nationwide to meet DHS mission requirements. This includes the training, operation, maintenance, and use of sUAS. The Proposed Action would allow DHS to continue its current use of sUAS and implement future uses, not yet established, that would be situational by Component. DHS Components include, among others, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers (FLETC), US Coast Guard (USCG), US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the Science and Technology Directorate (S&T), the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and US Secret Service (USSS). The utilization of sUAS by DHS would support research and testing, training, marine mammal protection and monitoring, emergency response, security and surveillance, navigational aid, search and rescue missions, law enforcement, disaster assessment and recovery, and facility inspections. These operations are not all-encompassing or limited to any Component, but they serve to provide a baseline for DHS and Component use of sUAS.

The purpose of the Proposed Action is to provide DHS with the capability to expand visual capability and gather information, surveillance, reconnaissance, and communications by employing remote controlled aerial reconnaissance equipment equipped with cameras, sensors, and other data collecting equipment. The use and operation of sUAS is highly safe and efficient, as sUAS allow access to areas that are difficult to reach, such as isolated, remote, or unsafe locations, or locations affected by natural disasters; are able to survey large geographic areas due to their aerial position; and can quickly synthesize and transmit data. The use of sUAS would support existing and emerging mission requirements of the various Components within DHS and the continued use of sUAS in DHS programs would facilitate services and strategies essential to the Nation’s security, safety, and emergency response.

The Proposed Action is needed to enhance and extend capability to DHS missions over various geographic areas in order to inform DHS operational and situational decisions. The DHS and its Components are frequently involved in dynamic situations, and data collection capabilities provided by sUAS are needed both to carry out mission objectives effectively and to ensure DHS’s success in protection, mitigation, response, and recovery activities. Areas of interest to DHS Components where data is needed are often unsafe or inaccessible, resulting in risks to personnel and DHS mission success. Without the Proposed Action, DHS would likely need to utilize alternative methods and technologies that may be less effective and more costly and inefficient, with a higher risk to DHS operators, to fulfill mission requirements, and ensure the long-term security of the US.

The operation of sUAS is confined to navigable airspace, which is controlled by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). sUAS may be operated in the same airspace as other aircraft, including helicopters. sUAS operators and mission personnel work within established regulations and coordinate with the FAA and other federal, state, and local aviation partners as necessary to deconflict airborne operations. In addition, the Proposed Action does not include any sUAS activities that include deployable modules/systems (e.g. aerosols, first aid or survival supply kits, gear, or sustainment). Deployable systems, such as cameras and infrared, have previously been analyzed and are covered under DHS CATEX B11.

The general study area evaluated for potential impacts to the human and natural environment from sUAS is defined as the area surrounding sUAS support activities on the ground (i.e., the GCS), and the airspace in which sUAS are flown. The PEA will programmatically analyze potential impacts from sUAS activities nationwide; no specific geographic study area is identified, and potential environmental impacts are considered on a national scope.

DHS is seeking comments from Federal, State, local agencies, Tribes, and individuals who may be interested in or affected by the Proposed Action. This input will be used in preparing the Draft PEA. Please provide any comments, concerns, information, studies, or other data you may have regarding the Proposed Action by April 14, 2022. All responses will be considered for incorporation in the PEA. We look forward to and welcome your participation in this analysis. DHS has contracted AECOM to facilitate the NEPA process. If you have comments or information relevant to the development of the PEA, please direct your correspondence to Kursten Anderson at AECOM, 10 Patewood Drive, Building 6 Suite 500, Greenville, SC 29615 or kursten.anderson@aecom.com.


Last Updated: 09/06/2022
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