Consumer Drone Use Continues to Ground Aircraft With No Sign of Slowing

As consumer drone sales numbers continue to increase annually, so too does the risk posed to the aerial firefighting industry by the casual use of this rapidly expanding technology.

The potential for collisions between aerial firefighting aircraft and civilian operated drones is an obvious concern, and one already given a lot of media coverage. One that many in the general public are yet to identify as a burgeoning issue is an increase in drones spotted flying in an area aerial firefighting operations are taking place.

Obtaining a consumer drone is as simple as placing an online order or buying one off the shelf at Walmart. With the ease in which the public can now consume this technology, it appears there will be no end in sight for the aerial firefighting industry having to combat this issue.

A quick news headline search over the last sixty days shows illegal consumer drone operation during fires has caused suspension of aerial firefighting efforts across the country on multiple occasions. Aerial firefighting efforts were hampered on the Alaska Fire in Provo, Utah on August 2nd, the Museum Fire Flagstaff, Arizona on July 25th, the Swan Lake Fire in Alaska July 12th, the Bocco Fire in Colorado on July 14th, and the Coldwater Fire also in Arizona on June 9th.

Despite national education and informational efforts nationwide by the FAA to educate drone users, these incidents continue to not only occur but appear to be increasing in their frequency.  Informational social media posts, YouTube videos, and information broadcast on local and national news outlets have for months been providing information to the public that details possible criminal prosecution for flying drones during aerial firefighting efforts. 

One of the many images used in social media campaigns to educate the public on the consequences of flying drones around aerial firefighting locations has done little to decrease groundings due to drone activity. Image: Victorian Country Fire Authority (Australia)

Sadly, the FAA’s education effort seems to have fallen on deaf ears of recreational drone operators. TFR restrictions being willfully ignored daily by many flying consumer drones. Sales that now number in the millions throughout the United States. Drone sightings have resulted in aerial firefighting mission suspensions that continue to increase in frequency despite the efforts of both federal and state authorities. 

Last year, consumer drone sales hit a record high of thirteen million units in the United States. Sales showing no signs of abating as industry projections for drone sales are predicted to hit twenty-nine million units shipped annually by 2020. With this many drones in circulation, it stands to reason that unless drastic measures are undertaken at the consumer level by companies such as industry leader in sales DJI, and at the regulatory level, the problem will only worsen over the next several years.

There is also real difficulty in policing these infringements at the local level to apprehend those responsible. Law enforcement charged with apprehending suspects involved in illegal drone operations during fires are frequently stretched to their limits before any drone activity reports. Officers are often already engaged in protecting residents or assisting in evacuation efforts. Thus, locating a suspect who is often easily mobile and close by a vehicle, proves often fruitless.

The aerial firefighting industry is not the only industry affected with unauthorized flights by commercially available drones being flown irresponsibly. Multiple drone sightings at altitudes far in excess of the legally allowed altitude of 400 feet AGL are reported weekly in commercial aviation.

Incidents also include incursions into prohibited areas such as the White House in Washington D.C, and another incident in the United Kingdom where a drone caused commercial air traffic to come to a standstill, causing hundreds of flights to be delayed or canceled.

DJI, for its part, has made efforts to prevent these issues by employing technology via software updates that employs geofencing to areas where drone flight is prohibited, such as the area around Washington D.C contained in a Permanent Flight Restriction (PFR) area that encompasses much of the greater Washington D.C area.

Although this technology has proven effective for PFR covered areas, it remains to be seen how effective the DJI system or others from fellow drone manufacturers perform as it relates to pop up TFR’s like those put in place during a fire.  Like any software, a geofenced restriction that prevents a drone from taking off is only as effective as the speed at which the drone manufacturing company adds a TFR into their flight database.

In the case of the several included examples in this story of drone incursions into a fireground, shows that there may still be room for improvement in the processing of these requests and entering them into proprietary software used to apply geospatial restrictions to flight.

The number of resources available for the amateur drone flyer through to the professional licensed drone operator flying under the governing regulations of FAA CFR part 107 are plentiful and continue to grow. Thus, making the excuse of not knowing any of the regulations or restrictions for operating a drone, like that of those caught and prosecuted for illuminating aircraft with high powered lasers.

A defense that holds little water and lacks basic common sense or any understanding that their actions could in a worst-case scenario, cause the loss of an aircraft and crew, or even a larger loss of life due to the grounding of aerial firefighting aircraft that allows the unabated spread of a wildfire that could potentially cost many lives.

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