Last week the Governor of California signed legislation that removes the liability if a firefighter takes down a drone, or unmanned aerial system (USA), that was interfering with emergency operations.
Airborne firefighters have had to ground their aircraft many times over the last two years when privately operated drones intruded into the airspace over wildland fires. If a drone collides with a helicopter or air tanker the consequences could be very serious.
Senate Bill #807 says in part:
An emergency responder shall not be liable for any damage to an unmanned aircraft or unmanned aircraft system, if that damage was caused while the emergency responder was providing, and the unmanned aircraft or unmanned aircraft system was interfering with, the operation, support, or enabling of the emergency services listed in Section 853 of the Government Code.
Emergency responder is defined as “a paid or unpaid volunteer” or “a private entity”.
The price of sophisticated drones has come down in the last year and their capabilities have made them much easier to fly. It is likely that this interference problem on fires is going to get worse before it gets better.
Both DJI and GoPro in the last two weeks announced new, much more transportable systems with folding propeller arms. The DJI Mavic Pro only weighs 1.62 pounds and when folded can fit into the pocket of some cargo pants. The GoPro Karma is half a pound heavier and is about twice as large when folded. They can fly at 35 to 40 mph at a distance of 1.8 to 4.3 miles and cost around $1,000.
Some drone manufacturers, including DJI, are incorporating geofencing software designed to prevent drones from flying near airports, Temporary Flight Restrictions, and other sensitive sites. The Department of the Interior is beta testing a new system that will ultimately prevent drones from flying over a fire even before a TFR is initiated, as long as the dispatchers enter the fire location data into the Integrated Reporting of Wildland-Fire Information (IRWIN) service.
As long as the DJI drone operator is connected to the internet, the system will warn the operator not to fly into the fire area. However at this stage in the development of the system it will only be a warning and can be ignored. DJI and other drone companies could change that next year, making it impossible to fly into a fire area.