portrait of fire fighterThis is not about Bambi.

This is about our way of life.

It’s also about a new law in Utah, a new announcement from AirMap and some things that I hope will help you to understand why I keep going on about drones interfering with air ops at wildfires. I am setting aside logic to tell this story in human terms. Because down on the ground where the fires roar, a very human drama is playing out.
Despite the apparent vastness of the West, much of it is barren. There is always a drought. The land is harsh, great swaths are not arable and the growing seasons
are short.
A tree is a miracle. It takes decades, even centuries to grow a tree.
  • Forests are incredibly valuable – and not just because companies harvest timber.
  • Forests hold back erosion – it’s hard to forget the horrifying scenes from Washington two years ago when entire valleys and neighborhoods were
    swept away.
  • Forests protect the watershed – they shade and cool streams. Provide forage and shelter to wildlife. And  the summer browse for the grass fed cattle and lambs people pay big bucks for.
  • Forests are a source of precious tourism dollars. Ski, bike, hunt, fish, camp, climb – everything goes better with trees.
  • And lots of people build homes in the forests, many where they probably shouldn’t.
Westerners understand and accept that wildfires are a fact of life. That they are part of an ageless, virtuous cycle of regeneration. Yes, people do debate which ones should be left to burn, and which in the parlance, should be suppressed.

But once the decision has been made to fight a fire, lives are committed and the debate is over.

Firefighting is a deadly serious business – remember 2013 when every single one of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, 19 in all, were killed on a Sunday while fighting the Yarnell Hill fire?

They died fighting to protect their friends, their families and their forests.

Fortunately, a drone had nothing to do with it. But to see how hard it hit the people of the community – the fathers, sisters, mothers, brothers and buds – take a look at this video made by my friend Chris Woods and narrated in part by Vice President Joe Biden. You’ll need a box of hankies. Because it’s plenty personal.

 

If all went according to plan, this week we got word that President Obama signed the FAA Extension, Safety, and Security Act of 2016 into law and the FAA is still open for business. As I reported last week. FESSA contains 13 drone specific provisions. This is the one that is pertinent to our discussion:

SEC. 2205. INTERFERENCE WITH WILDFIRE SUPPRESSION, LAW ENFORCEMENT, OR EMERGENCY RESPONSE EFFORT BY OPERATION OF UNMANNED AIRCRAFT. An individual who operates an unmanned aircraft and in so doing knowingly or recklessly interferes with a wildfire suppression, law enforcement, or emergency response effort is liable to the United States Government for a civil penalty of not more than $20,000.

Still it is helpful to remember that out West, a gun is not a weapon but a tool that is used for shooting rattlesnakes and other useless varmints.

No one should be surprised that frustrated locals who both feel and fear “the burn,” are taking matters into their own legislatures. This week brings another such story, another contribution to the patchwork quilt, another restatement of the frustration and the anger at the sheer selfishness and stupidity of those who choose to put our people, homes and trees at risk.
On Monday, Governor Gary Herbert of Utah called a special session of the
Utah legislature:

Utah lawmakers vote to let authorities disable drones near wildfires

“This summer, wildfires in the state have become significantly worse due to drones interrupting air operations,” Gov. Herbert said. “It is dangerous and completely unacceptable, and this legislation takes steps to ensure that our emergency management personnel are safe and empowered to do their
jobs effectively.”

The bill was sponsored by Senator Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City. Vickers said that although the bill allows firefighters or law enforcement to shoot down a drone, he doubts that they would because unmanned aircraft fly so high and it would be difficult to do. Instead, Vickers said that fire officials and law enforcement officers are expected to use jamming signals to crash the drones.

Vickers told The Associated Press that the National Guard and state highway patrol already have the jamming technology which would allow officials to target a specific drone without hurting other nearby aircraft or technology.

The bill allows for a maximum punishment of 15 years in prison and $15,000 fine if a drone cases a firefighting aircraft to crash.

This is the second time this year that a bill has been proposed in the Utah legislature to address this issue. The first proposal, which relied on old-fashioned ammunition, failed in February 2016. Which was probably a good thing for the pilots in the air.

 

Because the tankers had to be grounded, Senator Vickers (video) put the additional costs associated with the Saddle Peak fire at $8M. More to the spirit of this post is his comment that “When the planes can’t drop retardant, it puts the crews on the ground in danger.”
Perhaps the most interesting part of his presentation was when the Senator noted that as a redneck his natural inclination was to blast the things out of the air. But instead, Utah has a technology solution that can ground drones without interfering with other electronics. I must admit that this is pretty entertaining when you consider the millions being spent on Pathfinder and MITRE to find similar (admittedly more sophisticated) solutions.

I am not sure what the secret sauce is but I would be delighted to help market it, I can think of any number of agencies who would buy it.

According to the Utah State website, H.B. 3003 was passed by both the Senate and the House on July 13th, sent for signature and “been enrolled to printing.” I am guessing that only a bill that is about to become law is printed, but I have put in a call to the Governor’s office to be sure.
Offering a hypothetical alternative to the problem is this announcement from AirMap and DJI.

DJI and AirMap deliver real-time wildfire awareness and geofencing capabilities for drones

The article announces that:

AirMap now obtains wildfire information directly from the U.S. Department of the Interior’s incident command system and immediately pushes it to drone pilots through AirMap’s iOS and web apps, AirMap’s API, and the GEO geofencing system included in the DJI GO flight control app. This data is more current and includes more active wildfires than Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) published by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

“AirMap delivers dynamic airspace intelligence to unmanned aircraft in order to provide the safest operating environment possible,” said Ben Marcus, CEO of AirMap. “Through our partnership with DJI and other drone manufacturers and application developers, more than 70 percent of the drones operated in the United States now benefit from wildfire information in real time.”

We’ve talked about this before in my post Fight Fire With Data? Or Guns? When you read it you’ll know that while I am dazzled by the technology, I am not much impressed. Here’s why.
What AirMap is proposing to do – or what they can do – is a pretty cool bit of data mining. Data that is probably free for the taking courtesy of the DOI.
If you are flying from say Truth or Consequences, NM to San Luis, CO, a distance of some 325 miles, it would be very useful to know that there was a wildfire near Ojo Caliente so that you could route around it. Though on a clear day there is little doubt that you would see the fire from 50 plus miles away and have plenty of time to take evasive action – you know every pilot’s job – see and avoid.
You would route around it because you wouldn’t want to get your plane dirty, and because you wouldn’t want to get in anyone’s way who might be up there doing something useful like trying to put out the fire. Nor would you want to crash
and burn.
On the other hand, when you are supposed to be flying visual line of sight (about a 1/4 of a mile) at a maximum of 400’AGL, and you are standing in the Carson National Forest, you don’t need geo-fencing.

 

AirMap screen showing fires

You don’t need this map when the only hotspot you can connect to is the one that you’re standing on.

In fact, a person doesn’t need anything but their eyes, nose and a lick of common sense to understand what they are seeing and smelling all around them.
Because a wildfire – even a little one – is pretty dang hard to miss.
And helicopters? Those are the things in the sky going “woop, woop, woop.” And heading towards the fire, not running away from it.
Wildfire in Utah
If I fly, they can’t.

Run is what every animal in the forest and people with common sense all do.

read more about Utah at sUAS News

read more about AirMap and DJI at sUAS News

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