As the 2016 wildfire season begins, federal agencies are again alerting industry and the public that the use of unauthorized unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) over or near active wildfire operations can put emergency responders at risk, the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) has announced.
To underscore the dangers, the DOI, U.S. Forest Service and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have launched public education campaigns and are collaborating with industry to increase drone operator awareness of wildfire locations and the penalties for illegal UAS use in the areas.
Last year alone, according to the DOI, there were more than 20 drone encroachments over active wildfires. The department says two incidents required pilots of firefighting aircraft to take evasive action to avoid a collision, 12 adversely affected the management of fire incidents, and one shut down an entire highway corridor in California.
The DOI, U.S. Forest Service and FAA are continuing the “If You Fly, We Can’t” educational campaign, which was launched last year to warn the public of the dangers UAS can pose to low-flying firefighting aircraft, firefighters and the public.
Though the FAA establishes Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) over most large wildfires and charts them on aviation planning tools, 98% of wildfires are controlled (stopped) within the first 24 hours without a TFR in place, the DOI says. As a result, 98% of the time, responsible drone users operating within current regulations are not aware that the smoke column they see is a wildfire and that flying their drone could pose a risk, the department explains.
To help address this problem in 2016, the DOI’s offices of wildland fire and aviation services have collaborated with industry to develop a pilot project to make initial fire location data publicly available to commercial mapping providers. The DOI says this location information will increase awareness of drone operators; ultimately, drone manufacturers could use the information to automatically geo-fence wildfire areas from entry by the drones they sell. This data will be available to the public by July.
The DOI notes that federal agencies recognize that increasing public awareness is just one component of what needs to be done; enhanced notification and law enforcement processes are also required. For example, the FAA implemented its drone registration process for drones in 2015 and developed detailed guidance to law enforcement for dealing with suspected unauthorized drone operations.
Complementing these initiatives, the National Wildfire Coordinating Group – an interagency body of senior fire officials from federal and state wildland fire management organizations – established improved drone incursion notification protocols for wildland firefighters. The DOI says these protocols ensure fire managers receive critical drone incursion and location information so they can make timely decisions to either reroute firefighting aircraft or not fly until it is safe to do so. The protocols also ensure consistent notification to the FAA and local law enforcement.
“The Interior Department and Forest Service believe these enhanced public education measures offer better public awareness about the use of drones and can reduce the risk of inadvertent drone use in wildfire areas that threaten the safety of our firefighters,” states Mark Bathrick, director of the DOI’s office of aviation services. “The initiative to share initial wildfire location data with commercial mapping providers is especially promising.”