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Firefighters to drones: Buzz off

A drone and its master. (Photo: Ahturner)

Efforts to contain a July 12 brush fire in San Bernardino County were delayed for eight crucial minutes after response crews spotted a hobbyist’s drone flying close to the fire area.

The drone, which US Forest Service officials suspect may have been recording footage of the fire, eventually flew off, allowing grounded air crews to resume.

Under most circumstances, eight minutes is not a long span of time. But for firefighters, those lost minutes can be devastating as they try to contain a wildfire. A clear and secured sky is crucial for aerial fire response, so a mission compromised by a stray drone can cost thousands of dollars in wasted funds, lost acreage, and a significant delay in fire containment, said Cal Fire officials.

In June, a mission to airdrop fire retardant over another San Bernardino fire was aborted when a hobby drone flew too close to the mission’s location.

The July 12 incident in San Bernardino marked the fourth time this year that an effort to contain a California wildfire has been disrupted by a domestic drone, prompting a more serious discussion on how the state should regulate airspace without stunting a developing tech industry.

Unmanned aerial systems, commonly referred to as “drones,” have been popping up more recently as a techy dream for hobbyists, with substantial economic potential. Earlier this year, the Consumer Electronics Association estimated that as many as 400,000 drones will be sold nationwide in 2015, with revenue from drone sales to exceed $1 billion over the next five years.

But recent news about domestic drones has exposed a downside, as evidenced by the incident in fighting the San Bernardino wildfire.

It wasn’t the first such incident. In June, a mission to airdrop fire retardant over another San Bernardino fire was aborted when a hobby drone flew too close to the mission’s location. A few days later, two drones caused a temporary halt of another mission near the Del Rosa community, also in San Bernardino County. One of those drone pilots eventually was identified and detained, according to Bryan Lane of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department.

As a result, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has started a campaign to educate citizens on drone usage during wildfires.

Cal Fire’s slogan: “When you fly … we CAN’T! Puts our pilots lives at risk.”

The bill would make it a federal offense to launch a drone that interferes with fighting wildfires on federal land.

The disruptions also have gained the attention of the state Legislature where several attempts have been made to address how unmanned aircraft are operated in California’s skies.

On July 14, an Assembly committee approved a bill – SB 142 by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) – that would make it illegal to fly a drone at less than 350 feet over private property without the owner’s permission. This change in the law would allow violators to be prosecuted for trespassing.

“Drones have a lot of potential and extremely innovative purposes. They are an exciting technology that offers great commercial and recreational opportunities in California,” Jackson told the committee. “But we need to make it clear what the rules are.”

The Federal Aviation Administration currently restricts drone usage above 400 feet, but the drones involved in California’s recent firefighting delays were flying at about 800 or 900 feet. Additionally, the wildfire areas were under a temporary flight restriction from the FAA, which prohibited drone flights.

“There needs to be some sort regulation in this area,” said Randy Pollack of the American Chemistry Council, who supported Jackson’s bill. “Because when you have drones flying over, they can come in, they could crash, they could create havoc among some of our equipment.“

Last week, Rep. Paul Cook (R- Apple Valley) introduced a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives to directly address the recent spate of Southern California firefighting disruptions. The bill, the Wildfire Airspace Protection Act of 2015, would make it a federal offense to launch a drone that interferes with fighting wildfires on federal land.

Amazon’s Prime Air drones gained attention over the past two years of development, and smaller companies are also looking into implementing drones.

“Not only did it put the lives of aerial firefighters in jeopardy, but the loss of air support for fire crews allowed the wildfire to spread,” said Cook in a press release. “Interfering with our firefighters is a serious problem.”

The drone regulation struggle has not been limited to California. Three years ago, President Obama signed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which set a September 2015 deadline for providing a safe path towards integration of unmanned drones into the national airspace. The FAA followed up on this deadline in February of this year by releasing new rules for operating small commercial drones. The federal Department of Justice published its own guidelines shortly after on how federal law enforcement agencies may use drones.

Between this scramble for regulations, public safety and privacy concerns, domestic drones are becoming a quickly developing technology. From film production to real estate to food delivery, unmanned aerial vehicles have shown significant potential in public, private, and commercial usage.

Amazon’s Prime Air drones gained attention over the past two years of development, and smaller companies are also looking into implementing drones. While commercial drone operators are still waiting on FAA regulations, drones have also been considered for monitoring police situations and mapping out wildfires.

And on July 17, a delivery service called Flirtey made the first FAA-approved drone delivery in the U.S. when it brought medical supplies to an annual free clinic at a fairground in rural Wise County, Virginia. The drone-in was a collaboration among Flirtey, NASA and Virginia Tech.

Matthew Sweeney, CEO of Flirtey, is confident that commercial delivery drones are the next big step in representing how drones can be a positive industry if handled correctly.

“I’ve always personally thought that there were three industries that were going to transform the world in the next five years,” said Sweeney. “Unmanned aerial vehicle technology, 3-D printing, and whoever can figure out the future of online news.”

Ed’s Note: Virginia McCormick, a journalism student at Sacramento State University, is a Capitol Weekly intern from the public affairs journalism program at UC Sacramento Center. 

 


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