Every second counts when fighting wildfires. This certainly held true on July 17 when Cal Fire’s aerial firefighting operations were suspended because five consumer drones were flying over the North Fire in San Bernardino County.
During those crucial 20 minutes, the fire quickly expanded and jumped the freeway, torching 20 vehicles and endangering lives.
Firefighters faced a similar situation during the recent Lake Fire near Big Bear Lake.
A drone with a wingspan of three or four feet was flying at an elevation of nearly 12,000 feet — the altitude at which the planes fly.
After the drone was spotted, the mission was aborted to protect the pilots and lives on the ground. The drone could have easily collided with the plane or flown into an engine, helicopter rotor or tail rotor, and the results would have been tragic.
Because of this reckless activity, firefighting operations were delayed by several hours, the fire expanded and approximately $15,000 worth of flame retardant had to be dumped. The planes couldn’t land with the added weight.
In total, there were a half dozen incidents where aerial firefighting operations were disrupted by drones in July alone.
And in today’s dry conditions, such close calls are certain to increase, jeopardizing the safety of firefighters and placing the public at risk.
These types of interactions with drones aren’t limited to planes that fight fires.
Several close calls and numerous other sightings have been reported by passenger planes near LAX. In February, a jet flying at 4,000 feet narrowly avoided colliding with a drone.
These incidents occur for two reasons.
First, there are no clear rules on when, where and under what conditions consumers can operate drones.
Second, the use of drones by hobbyists has proliferated in recent years. Amazon is now reportedly selling more than 10,000 drones per month. More than 500,000 have been sold to date nationwide.
The Federal Aviation Administration does not currently have the authority to regulate the use of drones by consumers. It only has the authority to regulate the use of drones used for commercial purposes, such as by a movie studio during filming.
The Consumer Drone Safety Act, introduced in the Senate in June, would fix this problem and close these loopholes in FAA’s authority.
The bill would help by laying out clearer rules on how to operate consumer drones to reduce the potential for confusion among drone operators.
FAA would be required to spell out altitudes and geographic areas where flights may be restricted. Restricted areas may include near airports and prominent landmarks, in the flight paths of manned aircraft, in densely populated areas and over widely attended public events.
The bill would also require manufacturers to install basic technological safeguards in new drones and, when it’s feasible, update drones that have already been sold.
Technologies like altitude restrictions and geo-fencing, which would restrict drones from flying too close to restricted areas, already exist and are in use in some models. These need to be more widespread.
If altitude restrictions had been installed in the drone that disrupted the Lake Fire firefighting efforts, it would not have been able to climb to 12,000 feet. In many cases, upgrades can be made through simple software updates downloaded by the user.
Manufacturers would also be required to provide consumers with basic educational materials and warnings about the potential consequences of misusing a drone. Hobbyists don’t have bad intentions. Many simply don’t know the dangers of losing sight of their drone or reaching higher altitudes.
In the case of wildfires, the FAA issues notices to all airmen to not approach the area until firefighting activities are complete. Recreational drone operators are often unaware of these injunctions. This shows a clear need for consumer education.
If all manufacturers include these warnings in their instructions, hobbyists would be less likely to use the device in an unsafe manner.
We recognize this new technological is exciting and has many promising commercial and government applications. Firefighters, for example, have used drones to survey fires and plan how best to attack them using real-time intelligence.
Hobbyists also enjoy these advances in technology, but they must do so safely. Congress must act to give the FAA the authority it needs to protect the public. Without commonsense rules-of-the-road, innocent drone flights could have tragic results.