photo of wildfire from the air

98% of the time, responsible drone users operating within current regulations are not aware that the smoke column they see is a wildfire and that flying their drone could pose a risk.

As the 2016 wildfire season begins, federal agencies are again alerting industry and the public that the use of unauthorized unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) over or near active wildfire operations can put emergency responders at risk, the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) has announced.

Though the FAA establishes Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) over most large wildfires and charts them on aviation planning tools, 98% of wildfires are controlled (stopped) within the first 24 hours without a TFR in place, the DOI says. As a result, 98% of the time, responsible drone users operating within current regulations are not aware that the smoke column they see is a wildfire and that flying their drone could pose a risk, the department explains.

To help address this problem in 2016, the DOI’s offices of wildland fire and aviation services have collaborated with industry to develop a pilot project to make initial fire location data publicly available to commercial mapping providers. The DOI says this location information will increase awareness of
drone operators.

Ultimately, drone manufacturers could use the information to automatically geo-fence wildfire areas from entry by the drones they sell.

Once more the magic of geo-fencing rears its head as a panacea for people being, well, people. Like many of you, I live in wildfire country. If I see a large column of smoke, there is only one thing that it can be.  I am pretty darn sure that the guy who can’t figure out that it’s not OK to fly VLOS into a forest fire, is not checking TFRs, any more than he is flying below 400′. All that is left to decide is if he is a scofflaw
or is just plain stupid.
I admire the willingness to make this information available, but until someone makes a law that all drones sold in the US have to utilize a standardized geo-fencing application, and that each drone must connect to the Internet to update the app prior to every launch, it doesn’t matter.
Yes I get that will never happen.
Honestly, I don’t see why we need to spend mass quantities of taxpayer dollars to stop a handful of idiots. There were 20-25 reported “drone encroachments” last year. Apparently not a single one was arrested. And if they were, and if this system was in place, their lawyers would then claim that there was a failure somewhere in a very complex system and therefore their client was unable… etc.
Not waiting around for all this digital goodness to take shape, CA State Senator Ted Gaines (R) has introduced S.B. 807 which is through committee and headed for the Assembly. This is a watered down do-over on a bill that failed last year (S.B. 168) that grants civil immunity to any emergency responder who damages a UAS (i.e. blows it out of the sky.) Said the Senator:

“To think that someone would interfere with firefighting or emergency response situations to get a sneak peek or to post a drone video on YouTube is an outrage that is deserving of punishment and condemnation.”

No problem Senator as long as the FAA has no problem with someone damaging an aircraft in flight and state law trumps federal law – unless of course it’s not an aircraft but a model plane… Here is Greg McNeal’s essay on the subject from December 2013. This is an issue that has people like John Goglia wondering when the FAA is going to get around to enforcing the law. I suppose Governor Brown will have to point this out to him if it ever gets that far.
All that said, I understand that the angst is palpable. And a stop-gap fix is desperately needed. I have a different approach that might be more effective. It’s so low tech it can be implemented immediately. Catch a couple of these guys and throw the book at them very publicly. Then put them on the fire line. Meanwhile ask Smokey the Bear if he has time to do his thing.



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