The FAA Once Declared Drones and Wildfires a “Toxic Mix.” But Times Are Changing

As America heads for another deadly season of wildfires, there is growing concern that increasingly aggressive recreational drone fliers will interfere with public authorities seeking to battle the blazes with manned aircraft and helicopters.  The problem is largely one of public education.  Drone fliers are often unaware that their operations, when detected by public authorities, trigger an automatic stand-down order that requires all firefighting aircraft operating in the same airspace to be grounded.  Suspending manned flights, especially at the height of a blaze, can allow fires to spread, causing more damage to property and human life.

In some cases, public authorities issue a Temporary Flight Restriction order that warns all private aircraft to steer clear of a fire-fighting operation; violators can face a stiff fine or even jail time.  But not always.  Another complicating factor is the activity of news media organizations that may assert a First Amendment right to report on a fire, resisting orders to abandon contested airspace.

The issue is complicated by the fact that most state fire-fighting agencies are still resisting the idea that properly-equipped drones under their own command might have an important role to play in fire-fighting.  China and a number of other countries are already deploying drones in critical fire-fighting roles, including aerial surveying (especially at night, with the use of infrared and thermal imaging cameras), ground support (delivering food, blankets and equipment to exhausted fire-fighting crews) and active fire suppression (through cloud seeding and the release of water and chemicals to help contain the blaze).  But many US fire-fighting agencies, despite being overwhelmed by wildfires, fear that drones may put their flight crews out of work; and steeped in age-old work protocols, they resist the new training that might be required to become drone fliers and to coordinate drone operations with manned aircraft.

So far, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is already struggling to reform aircraft regulations to accommodate drones in a range of commercial operations, seems reluctant to broach the issue.

Paradoxically, many urban firefighting departments have begun to embrace UAVs – often wholeheartedly.  Drones, they have found, can improve situational awareness of a building fire and with thermal imaging technology can identify core hot spots in need of special targeting.  Drones can also assess the likely trajectory of the fire, helping to prevent its spread.  So far, no urban fire department has deployed their drones to carry fire hoses or to disperse water or chemicals to control the fire, but some departments are still studying the idea.

The threat of private drone interference in fire-fighting is much less an issue in these urban settings where the field of operations is circumscribed and no manned aircraft or helicopters are rarely involved.  Fire department ground crews tend to welcome all the help they can get.  In fact, when fire departments lack drones of their own, private owners can sometimes step in to assist the official effort on a volunteer basis.  In fact, hundreds of recreational drone pilots with no direct connection to local police, fire, or medical agencies have already been granted permission by the FAA to become contractors to local fire as well as police and first responders for special service missions with their drones, and to charge for that work. While not actively encouraged, these supplemental efforts may be welcomed during an emergency, but there is little evidence so far that the practice has become widespread.

There are some examples of wildfire agencies, especially in California, deploying drones of their own.  But resistance to involvement by private drone fiers is still strong.  Eugene Robinson, a private drone flier who began offering his services during wildfires in California was formally banned from doing so by the FAA.  His ban, however, was overturned in court. In addition, the state’s governor refused to sign a bill passed by the legislature that would have made an across-the-board ban official state law.

For now the uneasy modus vivendi between private drones fliers and public fire-fighting agencies is likely to remain.  But gone are the days when the FAA could issue a public statement calling drones and fire-fighting a “toxic mix.”  Invariably, state fire-fighting agencies will need to accommodate the growth of the drone industry and begin incorporating drones into their official arsenal, just as urban fire departments have.  And private drone fliers may still be called upon to provide niche services, as long the scope of their operations is strictly controlled by these agencies.

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