Lawmakers work to curb drone interference

After drones interfered with firefighters’ efforts to stop the “North Fire” that jumped Interstate 15 earlier this month, lawmakers at the state and federal levels voiced disapproval and introduced legislation to curb the potentially life-threatening disturbances.

A drone, or unmanned aircraft system (UAS), has interfered with firefighters’ operations several times in California this year. Firefighters’ planes, helicopters and air tankers carrying fire retardant or water have had to be rerouted until it was confirmed the drone left the area, allowing wildfires to grow larger.

Before the Interstate 15 fire, the U.S. Forest Service reported that unauthorized drones disrupted wildfire operations in Southern California twice in one week, causing air tanker operations to be suspended.


U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) circulated a letter he sent to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) urging the agency to consider further measures to prevent commercial and “hobbyist” drones from hindering operations.


“Not only do these drones put first responder pilots’ lives at risk, they also prevent these firefighters from helping to contain wildfires and put the lives of ordinary citizens at risk,” Schiff’s letter read.


Schiff said a DC-10 Air Tanker and two smaller planes were forced to divert and drop their fire retardant cargo elsewhere due to a commercial drone flying in the area. This cost taxpayers between $10,000 and $15,000.


In the early stages of a wildfire, time is of the essence and even an hour delay can be the difference between containment or an uncontrollable burn that destroys thousands of acres and threatens lives and property, Schiff said.


Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman Erik Scott said the department echoes the same message the U.S. Forest Service uses to get the word out about drone interference, “If you fly, we can’t.”


Scott said a drone or UAS is any aircraft flown without a pilot aboard, and thus subject to FAA regulations. FAA encourages individuals flying for hobby or recreation to follow their guidelines: fly below 400 feet, keep aircraft within sight at all times, remain clear of and do not interfere with manned aircraft operations. Flying UAS within the scope of the guidelines does not require permission. Otherwise, the drone or UAS requires FAA authorization.


Schiff said firefighting aircraft typically fly at the same height as drones. Officials say this creates the potential for a mid-air collision or loss of a communication link that could seriously injure or kill aerial or ground firefighters.


The FAA issues temporary flight restrictions (TFR) in places around wildfires to protect firefighting aircraft, FAA spokesman Les Dorr said. Nobody other than agencies involved in the firefighting process can fly a manned or unmanned aircraft in the area without FAA approval. Any unmanned aircraft operator who violates a TFR and endangers the safety of manned aircraft could be issued a warning notice, letter of correction or be assessed a penalty for careless or reckless operation of an aircraft. Civil penalties can range from $1,000 to $25,000 depending on the seriousness of the violation.


Jeff Powers, regional aviation officer for U.S. Forest Services in the Pacific Southwest Region, said his agency alone has dealt with eight instances in the U.S. and four instances in California this year when a drone interfered with fire suppression efforts, and that other agencies have reported more.


“From my standpoint, this is my pilot’s biggest fear,” Powers said. “[Pilots are] already in dynamic environment. Their minds need to be focused when they’re bringing in a tanker. The last thing they need on their mind is airspace stuff. Air speed varies from 125 to 135 knots per hour. At those speeds it can do some damage.”


Powers said pilots with the Forest Service detect drones using only eye sight, in a “see and avoid” effort. Powers said when the drones interfered with their efforts, pilots observed a drone flying between them and shut the operation down.


“It’s a big problem,” he said. “We don’t know where the person operating UAS is from. It can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. We’d rather put our effort towards putting fires out instead of looking for who’s working UASs.”


In the letter addressed to FAA administrator Michael Huerta, Schiff suggests the FAA consider technological measures to prevent drone interference.


“I think one of the things the FAA should consider is if there’s a technological solution to the problem so you can’t fly into an area and use this technology to find where operators are,” Schiff said. “That may provide the most effective answers.”


He said the costs can be incalculable so he wants to embark on a larger education campaign so people know there are real risks.


Among the possible solutions that Schiff said should be considered is the possibility of requiring technological measures, such as “geo-fencing,” in commercially available drones that prevent them from being flown within a geographic area where they are likely to interfere with firefighting activities.


“And in case of the wildfire they need to get out of the way,” he said. “This fire season I think this issue took on new sense of urgency, as we become more capable of flying in the paths of aircraft. I hope (the FAA) acts expeditiously. We don’t want to see anymore interruptions of these drones.


“We urge the (FAA) to consider all the tools at its disposal to prohibit this dangerous and irresponsible use of civilian drones, which have already endangered the lives of civilians and firefighters,” Schiff’s letter read.


The FAA introduced a new smartphone application this year called “B4UFLY,” designed to help model aircraft and UAS users know if it is safe and legal to fly in their current or planned location.


“We want to make sure hobbyists and modelers know where it is and isn’t OK to fly,” Huerta said.


B4UFLY allows access before they operate their aircraft to determine whether there are any restrictions or requirements in effect at the location where they want to fly. The FAA released the app to approximately 1,000 beta testers this summer.


The application features a “status” indicator that immediately informs operators about their current or planned location, information on the parameters that drive the status indicator, a planner mode for future flights in different locations, interactive maps with filtering options and contact information for nearby airports.


Compliance with these rules for model aircraft operators has been required since the Act was signed on Feb. 14, 2012. The FAA issued the notice to provide clear guidance to model operators on the “do’s and don’ts” of flying safely in accordance with the act.


“We have a mandate to protect the American people in the air and on the ground, and the public expects us to carry out that mission,” Huerta said.


The FAA is also developing a plan to work with the law enforcement community to help them understand the FAA’s rules for unmanned aircraft systems, as well as the special statutory rules for model aircraft operators, so they can more effectively protect public safety.


“Since there are so many people operating model UAS with little to no aviation experience, the FAA tries to promote voluntary compliance by educating individual UAS operators about how they can operate safely under current regulations and laws,” Dorr said. “The agency partnered with industry and the modeling community in a public outreach.”


The Los Angeles Board of Supervisors last week approved a motion by Supervisor Michael Antonovich, 5th District, to direct the interim chief executive officer, county counsel, fire chief and sheriff, to report back to the board within 30 days on the FAA’s guidelines regarding the use of drones, including distance from airports, altitude restrictions, privacy laws and obstruction of public safety.


Currently, the board is just looking for protocol recommendations, said Antonovich’s assistant chief deputy Tony Bell. After numerous reports about drone interference, the board is looking for the best way to go about maintaining optimum efficiency for firefighters.

By:  Gregory Cornfield
Source: Beverly Press