Following recent incidents in which unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) interfered with manned aircraft involved in wildland firefighting operations, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) says it is supporting the U.S. Department of the Interior and U.S. Forest Service in their simple message to drone operators: If you fly, we can't.
“Flying a drone near aerial firefighting aircraft doesn’t just pose a hazard to the pilots,” says U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “When aircraft are grounded because an unmanned aircraft is in the vicinity, lives are put at greater risk.”
A temporary flight restriction (TFR) is often put in place around wildfires to protect firefighting aircraft: No one other than the agencies involved in the firefighting effort can fly any manned or unmanned aircraft in such a TFR. Anyone who violates a TFR and endangers the safety of manned aircraft could be subject to civil and/or criminal penalties, says the FAA.
Even if there is no TFR, the agency explains, operating a UAS could still pose a hazard to firefighting aircraft and would violate Federal Aviation Regulations.
“The FAA’s top priority is safety. If you endanger manned aircraft or people on the ground with an unmanned aircraft, you could be liable for a fine ranging from $1,000 to a maximum of $25,000,” says FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “Know the rules before you fly. If you don’t, serious penalties could be coming your way for jeopardizing these important missions.”
According to the FAA, because so many people operate unmanned aircraft with little or no aviation experience, the agency is promoting voluntary compliance and working to educate UAS operators about how they can operate safely under current regulations and laws.
Late last year, the FAA, Small UAV Coalition, Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and Academy of Model Aeronautics partnered for the safety campaign “Know Before You Fly,” which recently reminded UAS users to respect wildfire operations. The National Interagency Fire Center also posted a video warning for users: “Be Smart. Be Safe. Stay Away.”
The FAA says it has also provided guidance to law enforcement agencies because they are often in the best position to deter, detect, immediately investigate and, as appropriate, pursue enforcement actions to stop unauthorized or unsafe drone operations.
So, the FAA concludes, remember this simple message around wildfires: If you fly, they can’t. Keep your drone on the ground, and let firefighters and aircraft do their jobs. And, if you see someone flying a drone near a wildfire, report it immediately to local law enforcement and the nearest FAA Flight Standards District Office with as much information as possible.