FBI Helps Catch Illegal Drone Flights Near Wildfires

A recent post at Wildfire Today Tells us about an important effort to help with one of the downsides of electric aviation. While drones are an important part of replacing dirty gas-powered (and often leaded) aviation, as well as other fossil-fueled aviation, their unique size and ease of purchase does lead to some sticky challenges for regulators. Like many other technologies, they can be used for good as well as for evil.

One of the evil uses for drones goes hand-in-hand with climate change. While we’re seeing more fires as areas dry out and experience more lightning, we’re also seeing people with a drone want to get a look at the fire. Not only do wildfires make for compelling photos, but getting a bird’s eye view is just plain cool. But, the airspace it takes to get that neat view also means that the aircraft participating in fire suppression can’t safely fly, and could end up grounded until the drone goes away.

The risks to pilots require avoiding the area, but the risks to property and life on the ground continue. So, people could be killed if this happens enough.

For this reason, the FAA started setting up “no fly zones” for drone operators near wildfires, and these temporary airspace restrictions often apply to other aircraft to keep things safe for helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft dropping water and fire retardants on the flames. But, to know about these restrictions, you have to know the rules to begin with. Amateurs who have taken the TRUST test (required now) and professionals who have taken their Part 107 test, both know to check for airspace restrictions before flying, and this is often easy to do with smartphone apps.

But, there are always the people who either don’t know about the rules or don’t care. Banning civilian drones isn’t an option, as we’d have to give up important benefits, like reduced emissions and saved lives. Plus, many people could build their own drone at home even if they were illegal. So law enforcement had to be smart and come up with other ways to take care of the remaining threat from the ignorant and the careless.

Now, the FBI claims to have equipment to instantly find drones flying illegally in the area, and quickly track down their operators. They reportedly told CNN:

“When the detection equipment finds the drone and identifies the operator’s location, we can very rapidly get that information to a ground intercept team who can then go make contact with that drone operator and essentially get them to stop flying that drone,” said James Peaco. III, the weapons of mass destruction coordinator for the FBI’s Los Angeles field office.

With a special sensor, the team can set up a boundary as large or as small as desired and get notified if a drone flies into that area, instantly obtaining precise details such as elevation, direction, speed as well as where the drone took off from and where the controller is currently standing.

“The first thing we do is order them to bring the drone back, explaining to him that there’s a wildfire and flying that drone during a wildland fire is actually a federal felony,” Peaco said.

So, if the rules and the important safety considerations aren’t enough, hopefully the increased threat of getting caught (and facing a federal felony) will be enough to keep people from doing stupid things with consumer drones.

Featured image by US Forest Service (Public Domain).


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