As the West Burns, Firefighters Face a New Threat: Drones

The federal government launches a program to disable drones’ ability to fly over wildfires and interfere with firefighting efforts.
(Photo: U.S. Bureau of Land Management)
Jul 26, 2016· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. And where there’s fire, there are often drones that disrupt firefighting efforts. It’s a serious problem that the federal government is trying to extinguish, especially during the current high-risk fire season.

As a fire burned out of control in Southern California, the United States Department of the Interior on Monday announced a prototype program to warn private drone operators in real time that skies over wildfires are off-limits while firefighting aircraft are in the area.

The department developed the system with China-based DJI, which sells 70 percent of all drones in the U.S., and AirMap and Skyward, two companies that offer navigational apps for private drone operators.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires private drone operators to keep clear of all piloted aircraft, but it can take 24 hours before the agency requests temporary flight restrictions over most large wildfires. Ninety-eight percent of those fires are controlled during that time, meaning FAA restrictions are not imposed.

Interior Department fire data, however, can be posted in near real time and are now transmitted to many drone operators immediately.

“We believe that one reason responsible drone operators have been stumbling onto fires and getting in the way is because 98 percent of all fires never get plotted,” said Mark Bathrick, director of the Interior Department’s Office of Aviation Services.

Many drones, including all those made by DJI, are equipped with “geofencing” GPS technology that prevents them from flying over restricted areas, such as airports, nuclear power plants, and the District of Columbia. That same technology will now keep them away from wildfires.

“I’m not aware of any other company that has a live geofencing system,” said Brendan Schulman, DJI’s vice president of policy and legal affairs. “I’m not sure how many others have geofencing, but we cover the majority of the drone market.”

Drones can help firefighters by mapping out burn areas, detecting hot spots, and monitoring water and flame-retardant drops, among other activities. But when unauthorized drones enter an airspace used by firefighting aircraft, they create a safety hazard that can bring down planes and helicopters.

“They run the risk of midair collisions, of smashing through windshields or into engines, which can be catastrophic,” Bathrick said. Firefighting aircraft must be grounded until drones are removed, delaying the response time in putting out a wildfire.

“As a pilot, I am flying low to the ground in a smoke-filled airspace with a number of aircraft around,” he said. “The last thing I’m looking for is a tiny drone, which is difficult to see on the best day.”

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Some operators accidentally enter restricted airspace, while others do so intentionally to capture dramatic video footage. Either way, unauthorized drones are intruding with increasing frequency.

Drone intrusions over wildfires more than doubled from 2014 to 2015, when 21 drones were spotted and aircraft were grounded six times. In two incidents, aircraft took evasive action to avoid collisions.

“In one California fire, they had to halt operations while the fire burned over a highway,” Bathrick said. “No one was injured or killed, but some evacuated vehicles caught fire. It’s only a matter of time before there’s an injury or death due to a drone in the air.”

“For the pilot program, we approached a couple of companies last year to see whether this would be possible,” he added. “We’re working to make sure our data is compatible with their systems. We’re getting feedback from them and hope to incorporate those lessons into a 2017 rollout to make it nationwide for everyone.”

DJI drone operators, including firefighters, can override flight restrictions by verifying their account with the company, Schulman said.

“Private operators can also get authorization,” he said. “There are dozens of examples of bystanders with drones helping with fires, and we want to enable those kinds of beneficial operations.”

“The system is not designed to thwart people who are going to find a way to fly anyway,” Schulman said. “The purpose is to educate users, so people really think about what they’re doing before they fly. Almost everyone wants to follow the rules. But sometimes people may not even know there’s a fire in the area.”