Good News for Drone Operators…
They no longer need special permission or a pilot’s license to fly drones weighing less than 55 lbs. That’s the latest FAA ruling.
One place you may NOT fly your drone, however: Over or near an active wildfire site.
“With this new rule, we are taking a careful and deliberate approach that balances the need to deploy this new technology with the FAA’s mission to protect public safety,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta.
Federal agencies have determined that flying private drones in the vicinity of active wildfire operations puts firefighting crews at risk. It also impedes their ability to protect the public.
That’s why the US Department of the Interior, US Forest Service and Federal Aviation Administration have joined forces to educate the public and increase awareness of wildfire locations among drone operators.
Last year alone, there were more than 20 drone encroachments over active wildfires. Two of these intrusions required evasive action on the part of firefighting pilots to avoid a collision. Twelve of the incidents negatively impacted the management of wildfire operations. And one incident required that an entire California highway corridor be shut down.
“If that drone came through my windshield, I have no idea what could have happened… If that drone hits my tail rotor, for sure it’s going to be catastrophic.” – Jason Thrasher, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Pilot
Despite the more liberal regulations, drone owners must still register their drones. They also must pass aviation knowledge exams for drone pilots and receive a certificate.
And just like aircraft hobbyists, drone owners must keep their drones within sight. This means they may not fly them over people or fly them higher than 400 feet. In addition, private drones may not fly over, take off from, or land in, any congressionally designated Wilderness Areas. (See related article, “Fighting Wildfires Around the World,” to see how Australia is using drones to fight wildfires.)
At the onset of the 2017 wildfire season, law enforcement officials will be imposing penalties for illegal drone use in the area of a wildfire. The FAA has developed detailed guidelines for use by law enforcement when dealing with suspected unauthorized drone operations. The drone registration process was implemented last year. It enables easy identification of drone owners caught interfering with fire operations.
Individual states are also implementing drone restrictions. So far, Utah’s regulations are the most severe. In Utah, operating a drone within any wildfire area is automatically a class B misdemeanor. It becomes a class A misdemeanor if the drone causes any firefighting aircraft to drop a payload in the wrong location, or to land without dropping the payload.
What’s more, the drone intrusion becomes a third-degree felony if the drone crashes into a manned aircraft. It becomes a second-degree felony if the drone causes the manned aircraft to crash. That can mean up to 15 years in prison.
Another Utah regulation allows officers to neutralize a drone that is flying in a prohibited area near a wildland fire. They can do this by either jamming the drone’s signal or even shooting it down.
Working together to increase public awareness about the threats of flying a drone over a wildfire, federal agencies are continuing the “If You Fly, We Can’t” educational campaign which was launched in 2015. The campaign warns the public of the dangers that drones pose to low-flying firefighting aircraft.
But, 98% of the time, responsible drone users don’t know that the smoke column they see is a wildfire. They’re not aware that flying their drone could pose a risk to firefighters and their aircraft.
Which is why the U.S. Department of Interior has collaborated with private industry to develop a pilot project to make initial fire location data available to the public.
Specifically, the Interior Department is working with drone makers and mapping companies to create a system that uses smartphones to quickly alert drone operators about wildfire restrictions.
The next step is for drone builders to create systems that would automatically prevent a drone from entering wildfire airspace.