Weed Drones: Montana Forest Service's Weirdest Impulse Buy Ever

This story is... wow. So, the Forest Service in Billings, Mont., spent $100,000 on a pair of weed-tracking drones in 2007, in the hope of flying them over marijuana plantations and taking pretty thermal pictures to catch those pesky weed-growing kids. But smokers and midnight tokers are laughing at the jokers today, because neither aircraft has ever been used: The pot-hungry planes are shamefully rusting away in California — not a single red-eye(d) flight for them — because nobody can figure out how to use them.

Like all hilarious bureaucratic mistakes, seemed like a good idea at the time: Buy a couple of drones to seek out Mary Jane's farms, then sit back and have a laugh as growers frantically try to remember what they ordered on Amazon. "We're dealing with organized efforts now -- not just a couple of hippies living off the land and making some cash on the side," Agriculture Undersecretary and overseer of the Forest Service Mark Rey said in 2008.

The Forest Service even made a very specific shopping list about exactly the kind of drone they wanted, so that's how carefully they went about this. And so, having decided on a pair of Sky Seers, the purchase was made.

At first, their purchase felt 1984-ish, and had a bunch of the liberal organizations in a hissy fit: "The two “unmanned aerial vehicles,' or drones, may represent the beginnings of wider conversion of military robotic technology for civilian uses," wrote the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) in 2008, reporting on the purchase.

But no-one had bothered to check if there actually were regulations against said drones... even though they'd had a decade to do so: The government first started checking out drones for law enforcement in 1997. "Sometimes what happens is, the technology gets out there before our agency policies," Forest Service spokeswoman Jennifer Jones admitted later. Awkwardly.

And surprise! In February 2007, two months after the drones were ordered, the Federal Aviation Administration further put the kibosh on the grandiose plans of the treehouse gang by releasing regulations about who can fly a drone. On the government's list of 61 approved drone-flyers? Not the Forest Service — whose ordered planes, according to internal memos, were delivered 10 months later in December, newly unusable.

But that wouldn't have been the end of it: Even if the department was allowed, there would have to be two qualified people present to guide the aircraft. Too bad they didn't have a pair in the same office.

"They spent $100,000 before they did any serious planning," said PEER's executive director, Jeff Ruch. "They had no plan for deployment, no strategy, no personnel."

After three years of being wishy-washing about whether to use drones or not to use the drones (as well as some outright denials about their existence), the plans were dropped in May, because they couldn't be bothered getting the regulatory approval (again).

“Getting FAA approval to fly one is a lengthy process,” Forest Service Northern Region spokesman Phil Sammon said Friday. “It takes too long to make it practical for a two- or three-week occurrence.”

And now? The Forest Service's LE&I division, who still can't be fussed with approvals, is trying to pawn off the drones on the Fire Management division, who had no idea that the drones had been purchased in the first place and despite the fact that the FAA is only cool with fire-fighting drones in emergencies. And yet, the Forest Service hasn't given up altogether: A 14-member task force, which is internal and not open to public engagement, is working its way through a list of 10 tasks exploring the use of drones. Meanwhile, the FAA's set to come out with a list of more expansive regulations in September 2015 — right around the time the task force is set to reveal their assessment.

Too bad the drones' custom-made, irreplaceable batteries are dead.

And this not the first time the Forest Service made a silly purchase: Right before they bought the drones, they spent $600,000 on tasers without training any of their staff how to use them. They're still sitting in boxes.

Makes you feel a little better about that impulse buy you made while "Christmas shopping," doesn't it?