California man arrested for flying drone over the Trailhead Fire

The drone forced the grounding of firefighting aircraft.

Officers with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection arrested a Placer County man Friday who allegedly interfered with firefighting operations recently on the Trailhead Fire by flying a drone over the fire, forcing fire managers to ground aircraft rather than risk a collision.

Information posted on social media helped lead law enforcement officers to Eric Wamser, 57, of Foresthill. He was arrested Friday afternoon, booked into the Placer County jail in Auburn and charged with interfering with firefighting operations. This is the first arrest by CAL FIRE law enforcement of a drone operator for interfering with firefighting.

Chief of CAL FIRE Ken Pimlott sent out a Tweet Friday night saying, “We will seek to prosecute those who put the public and our firefighters in peril with irresponsible use of drones.”

Mr. Wamser’s alleged actions delayed aerial firefighting on a fire burning in the steep canyon along the Middle Fork of the American River near Todd Valley. The Trailhead Fire started June 28 and is now 98 percent contained, according to CAL FIRE. It burned more than 5,600 acres and forced hundreds of residents of Placer and El Dorado counties to evacuate.

“The Trailhead Fire was burning in such a remote area that our aircraft were critical to stopping the fire,” said Chief George Morris III, CAL FIRE’s Nevada-Yuba-Placer unit chief. “Every minute we couldn’t fly our aircraft because of this drone, the fire was able to grow and do more damage.”

Utah legislature approves bill to allow authorities to disable drones near wildfires

The governor is expected to sign the bill.

Lawmakers in Utah have passed a bill that would allow authorities to disable drones that are flying close to wildfires. While the legislation would allow the aircraft to be shot down, it is more likely that they would be disabled by electronic devices that would jam the radio signal or force them to land. Violators could be fined up to $15,000 or be sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Below is an excerpt from an article at the Star Tribune:

…Bill sponsor Sen. Evan Vickers told The Associated Press that the state highway patrol and National Guard already have the technology.

“The redneck in me is just to shoot the damn thing,” Vickers told lawmakers, adding that it was much more “humane” to jam the drone’s signal.

He said the technology allows officials to target a specific drone and can be used without hurting other nearby aircraft or technology.

[Senator Vickers said] before the vote that the costs of fighting a small wildfire burning about 300 miles south of Salt Lake City would have been several million dollars if five drone flights hadn’t interfered.

“Now we’re way past, north of $10 million because we had to ground aircraft all because of a drone,” Herbert said.

The Washington County Sheriff’s Office has been investigating drones flying near the fire, which is burning on a rocky ridge above the town of Pine Valley, but no arrests have been made or suspects identified. The sheriff’s office has offered a $1,000 reward for information that leads to an arrest…

Congressional leaders agree on legislation that would affect the use of drones over wildfires

Leaders of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee today announced they have reached a bipartisan agreement on a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) extension through September 30, 2017, that will affect the U.S. aviation system, including the use of unmanned aircraft, or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), over wildfires.

Much of the agreement is directed toward airports and passenger screening, but four sections will be of interest to wildfire agencies.

The proposed legislation will require that the FAA convene industry stakeholders to facilitate the development of consensus standards for remotely identifying operators and owners of unmanned aircraft systems and associated unmanned aircraft. This is the first time I have heard of this idea. If implemented, when a UAS interferes with firefighting aircraft the operator could be identified, making it possible to slap them with a fine of up to $20,000, which is another provision in the agreement.

In addition, the proposed legislation requires the development of technologies to mitigate threats posed by errant or hostile unmanned aircraft systems. This could make it possible to disable a UAS that is interfering with aircraft operations over a wildfire.

The FAA is also directed to enter into agreements with the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture, as necessary, to continue the expeditious authorization of safe unmanned aircraft system operations in support of firefighting operations.

The leaders of the House and Senate said they hope to get the passed legislation to the president before the July 15 expiration of the FAA’s current authorization.

The House of Representatives version of the bipartisan legislation, HR 636, can be seen here.

FAA emails drone users, warning about flying near wildfires

This article first appeared on Wildfire Today.

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Several times in the last 10 days drones flying near wildfires have required that firefighting aircraft cease operations, sometimes for hours at a time.

Yesterday the Federal Aviation Administration sent a mass email to individuals who have registered their drones with the agency, warning them that “drone operators who interfere with wildfire suppression efforts are subject to civil penalties of up to $27,500 and possible criminal prosecution”.

FAA email drone warning
FAA emailed drone warning, June 29, 2016.

Air Tractor enters UAS market, acquires Yield Defender

Air Tractor, the Texas company that manufactures single engine air tankers and crop dusters, has acquired Hangar 78 UAV, and its flagship aircraft, the Yield Defender unmanned aerial system (UAS).

“We have done our research, and it’s clear that aggressively investing and further developing unmanned aerial systems into agriculture will enable Air Tractor to remain an industry leader and provide the latest technology to ag producers as UAS capabilities mature and are integrated into the industry,” said Jim Hirsch, President of Air Tractor.

Yielddefender
Yielddefender

Sensors available on the Yielddefender aircraft include near infrared and will “soon” enable 3-D mapping and thermal imaging. The company designs their systems for “real estate agents, farmers/ranchers, search and rescue, mining, oil and gas, forestry and many more”.

I wonder if Air Tractor is looking way down the road at converting the 802A into an autonomous UAS night-flying crop duster.

Air Tractor 802A
Air Tractor 802A. Air Tractor photo.

 

Remotely operated K-MAX helicopters relocated to Arizona

Above: The Marine Corps’ first two Kaman K-MAX Helicopters arrived at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., Saturday, May 7, 2016. Photo by Pfc. Beorge Melendez.

The two remotely piloted K-MAX helicopters that have been used in Afghanistan for the last several years were recently relocated to Yuma, Arizona. These two helicopters are probably similar to the optionally-piloted K-MAX that was demonstrated to wildland fire personnel last October near Boise when it dropped water on a simulated fire and delivered external cargo.

Below are the details, as provided by the Marine Corp, about the two K-MAX ships that are now in Arizona.

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MARINE CORPS AIR STATION YUMA, Ariz. – The Marine Corps’ first two Kaman K-MAX Helicopters arrived at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz. May 7, 2016.

The Kaman K-MAX Helicopter is very unique in many different ways, such as its purpose and design. It is a helicopter with interlinking rotors whose primary mission is to provide cargo load operations with a maximum lift payload of 6,000 pounds.

“The most unique thing is this aircraft can fly itself,” said Jerry McCawley, a Chief Pilot and Flight Safety Engineer with Lockheed Martin. “These two particular aircraft were over in Afghanistan for almost three years flying unhanded, and moving almost five million pounds of cargo, keeping numerous convoys off the road, preventing any roadside attacks.”
The K-MAX will utilize MCAS Yuma’s training ranges in both Arizona and California, and will soon have an integral part in testing and operations.

As MCAS Yuma continues expanding its scope of operations, the K-MAX will continue revolutionizing expeditionary Marine air-ground combat power in all environments.
“It’s very resilient and can fly day or night,” said McCawley. “It’s out here in Yuma for future test and development with the Marines. It’s great now, and it’s only going to get better.”

The K-MAX will be added to MCAS Yuma’s already vast collection of military aircraft, strengthening training, testing and operations across the Marine Corps.

Alberta to use drones to help find origin of fire at Fort McMurray

Reuters is reporting that the Alberta Government will use drones to help narrow down the point of origin of the huge wildfire that has burned 157,000 hectares (387,000 acres) at Fort McMurray and forced the evacuation of the entire city of more than 80,000 residents.

Below is an excerpt from the article:

…Elevated Robotic Services, which has also deployed drones for mining and construction companies, has contracts with the Alberta government and insurance broker Hub International Ltd [HBINT.UL], said Mat Matthews, the Edmonton company’s operations and safety manager.

The drones use cameras outfitted with infrared, ultraviolet and traditional optical cameras to pinpoint the hottest part of the fire and trace it to its source based on time, wind and other factors. The cameras will shoot about 800 images, which are then stitched together in a process called fire-mapping.

The work begins on Tuesday, coordinated with the other air traffic, including air tankers and helicopters.

The images, if successful, will zero down to a spot on the ground with about a 30-foot (9-meter) radius where the fire is believed to have started. From there, investigators will search on foot for the cause, such as a lightning strike or campfire.

Using the more traditional method of gathering images from helicopters, the fire’s cause could be narrowed only to half an acre, a much larger area to search on the ground, said Ron Windmueller, owner of Droneology, which supplies equipment and other services to Elevated.

Downward wind from helicopter blades can disturb the scene, forcing the pilot to stay about 1,000 feet in the air. A drone can capture images from 100 feet.

US Representative says drones could fight wildfires

U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton of Colorado says drones could be used to fight fires. Here is an excerpt from an article in The DAily Sentinel:

..Drones could be equipped with fire suppression equipment that could be used on small, remote fires, limiting the growth of the blazes and possibly circumventing the need to call in firefighters, Tipton said.

Firefighters could “see a fire start up, send in a drone and maybe stamp it out,” Tipton said.

The vehicles would have to be modified to deliver retardant and will need to withstand heat, Tipton said.

Drones also could be used to provide better information to firefighters on the ground, especially in smoky areas that limit visibility and inhibit radio transmissions, he said…

There is little doubt that drones could be used on fires. Lockheed Martin and K-Max demonstrated that in October when an optionally-piloted K-Max helicopter hauled cargo to a designated spot and dropped water on a simulated fire. As of October, 2013 two unmanned K-Max helicopters had flown more than 1,000 missions in Afghanistan and hauled more than 3 million pounds of cargo that would have otherwise been transported by trucks, which are vulnerable to roadside bomb attacks. One goal is to save lives by reducing Marines’ exposure to improvised explosive devices on cargo convoys.

K-Max helicopter
A K-Max helicopter at the Custer, SD airport, April 2, 2016. This one has not been modified to be remotely piloted.

The biggest issue for using unmanned aircraft on fires is getting the FAA and land managers to address the issue of safely incorporating the systems into the fire aviation environment.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bean.