This article was first published in Fire Aviation.
The FBI is using a new system to help wildland firefighters by detecting, identifying and neutralizing drones that are illegally interfering with firefighting activities.
It is very dangerous to fly a drone near a fire in which helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft operate. The collision could affect the windshield or damage the engine, props, rotors or flight control surfaces, causing an accident. If a drone is seen near a fire, the standard operating procedure is to remove all aircraft from the fire area until it is confirmed that the drone has left the scene. In other words, it interferes with firefighting efforts.
The FBI is working with the Los Angeles County Fire Department to use a system that can detect a drone flying over a fire within 30 seconds of launching it.
“When the detection equipment finds the drone and locates the operator, we can very quickly communicate that information to the ground-intercept team who can then contact the drone operator and basically get them to stop flying that drone,” James Biko said. The third, the FBI’s weapons of mass destruction coordinator in Los Angeles.
Using a special sensor, the team can create boundaries as large or small as desired and get a notification if a drone flies into that area, instantly getting accurate details like altitude, direction, and speed as well as where the drone is taking off and where the controller is currently standing.
“The first thing we do is ask them to return the drone, and explain to him that there is a wildfire and that flying that drone during a prairie fire is actually a federal crime,” Peaco said.
It is a federal crime punishable by up to 12 months in prison for interfering with firefighting efforts on public lands. In addition, Congress has authorized the FAA to impose a civil penalty of up to $20,000 against any drone pilot who interferes with wildfire suppression, law enforcement, or emergency response operations. The FAA takes these violations seriously, and will immediately consider swift enforcement action for these crimes.
According to the US Forest Service, in 2019, at least 20 documented cases of drone flights over or near wildfires in seven states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Washington, and Minnesota) triggered temporary aerial firefights. Close nine times. There is no central national mechanism for reporting unauthorized drone flights over bushfires, so these are only incidents that bushfire management agencies are aware of, and there is likely more that is not known about.
Suspending air operations may reduce the effectiveness of bushfire suppression operations, allowing wildfires to grow further and, in some cases, unduly threatening lives, property, and valuable natural and cultural resources. The effects of lost aircraft time can be exacerbated by the transmission of flames to untreated terrain.
Thanks and a tip of the hat to Tom and Gerald.