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.

Massachusetts college receives FAA permit to fly drones

Olin College intends to research the use of drones to assist in managing wildfires.

In one of the rare exemptions to FAA regulations governing the use of drones, Olin College has received permission to “conduct [drone] research on its own behalf and on behalf of other research groups” at least partially to study the use of drones collecting intelligence over wildfires. Olin College of Engineering is a private undergraduate college in Needham, Massachusetts. The permit was applied for by the Olin Robotics department and Professor Andrew Bennett.

Below is an excerpt from a press release by the college.

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“…Bennett recently received a call from Scientific Systems, a company that specializes in developing products that “collaboratively accomplish missions in difficult environments.” With some NASA-funding to pay for it, executives asked for help in figuring out a way to use drones to aid in fighting wildfires. Specifically, Bennett and his team were asked to work on a system where drones can be deployed into a wildfire and send back information in real time, potentially saving lives and livelihoods in the process.

Right now, firefighters receive information on where a fire is headed in a variety of ways including from pilots and first-hand accounts. They use that information to decide where to deploy fire bombers, personnel, and other resources. The problem is the data can be 12-24 hours out of date and is often unreliable. In addition, in an environment where driving conditions can be treacherous and the Internet non-existent, it can be impossible to communicate. So, if a fire shifts course, the firefighters may be unprepared to quickly move resources to a new location.

The Olin team is working on a proof of concept where several drones can communicate to each other while flying in dangerous conditions and, most importantly, send back data immediately. It should be noted that the aim of this project is to help fight fires using drones, instead of hindering the process as has happened recently with consumer drones flying into the flight path of air tankers in California. When they are ready for implementation, Bennett’s drones will fly in coordination with fire bombers.

Whale drone
The SnotBot drone.

Bennett’s drone “team” is particularly effective at designing and deploying drones in less than ideal flying conditions. For the past several years, they have been working on SnotBot, which is a drone that collects whale blow via a sponge-like attachment on its underside. As it flies over a whale, the drone captures the mucus and flies back to a boat. The testing for that project involved thousands of flights over water, and sometimes in it. SnotBot will allow scientists to learn more about whale stress levels. A Kickstarter campaign created by Ocean Alliance, another Olin partner, was recently fully funded.”

FAA announces registration system for drones

Today the Federal Aviation Administration announced a system for registering small drone aircraft, or Unmanned Aerial Systems. Maybe this will reduce the potential for them to interfere with aircraft engaged in close air support over wildfire. A number of times this year all helicopters and aircraft had to be grounded when drones were seen in the air near going fires. At least it will give the FAA the opportunity to contact the law abiding drone pilots who register their aircraft, telling them where they CAN’T fly.

Below is a press release from the FAA:

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WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) today announced a streamlined and user-friendly web-based aircraft registration process for owners of small unmanned aircraft (UAS) weighing more than 0.55 pounds (250 grams) and less than 55 pounds (approx. 25 kilograms) including payloads such as on-board cameras.

The Registration Task Force delivered recommendations to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on November 21. The rule incorporates many of the task force recommendations.

“Make no mistake: unmanned aircraft enthusiast are aviators, and with that title comes a great deal of responsibility,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “Registration gives us an opportunity to work with these users to operate their unmanned aircraft safely. I’m excited to welcome these new aviators into the culture of safety and responsibility that defines American innovation.”

Registration is a statutory requirement that applies to all aircraft.  Under this rule, any owner of a small UAS who has previously operated an unmanned aircraft exclusively as a model aircraft prior to December 21, 2015, must register no later than February 19, 2016. Owners of any other UAS purchased for use as a model aircraft after December 21, 2015 must register before the first flight outdoors. Owners may use either the paper-based process or the new streamlined, web-based system.  Owners using the new streamlined web-based system must be at least 13 years old to register.

Owners may register through a web-based system at www.faa.gov/uas/registration

Registrants will need to provide their name, home address and e-mail address. Upon completion of the registration process, the web application will generate a Certificate of Aircraft Registration/Proof of Ownership that will include a unique identification number for the UAS owner, which must be marked on the aircraft.

Owners using the model aircraft for hobby or recreation will only have to register once and may use the same identification number for all of their model UAS. The registration is valid for three years.

The normal registration fee is $5, but in an effort to encourage as many people as possible to register quickly, the FAA is waiving this fee for the first 30 days (from Dec. 21, 2015 to Jan 20, 2016).

“We expect hundreds of thousands of model unmanned aircraft will be purchased this holiday season,” said FAA Administrator Huerta. “Registration gives us the opportunity to educate these new airspace users before they fly so they know the airspace rules and understand they are accountable to the public for flying responsibly.”

The online registration system does not yet support registration of small UAS used for any purpose other than hobby or recreation – for example, using an unmanned aircraft in connection with a business. The FAA is developing enhancements that will allow such online registrations by spring of 2016.

Air tankers discussed in Senate hearing

Richard Zerkel

(UPDATED November 19, 2015. Scroll down to see the updated information.)

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Air tankers was one of the topics discussed today in a Washington D.C. hearing convened by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Richard B. Zerkel, President of Lynden Air Cargo, was one of six witnesses who testified, two of whom brought up issues about firefighting aircraft.

One of Mr. Zerkel’s main points in his prepared testimony was the “double standard” used by the U.S. Forest Service in managing their government owned air tankers and privately owned air tankers. The USFS will not operate the seven HC-130H air tankers obtained from the Coast Guard according to Federal Aviation Administration regulations as Part 121 air carrier aircraft, but will instead fly them as public use aircraft. This allows them to make up their own standards, or, as they announced, use procedures created by the Coast Guard who will advise the USFS about maintenance of the aircraft. (Fire Aviation wrote about this issue in September, 2015.)

Mr. Zerkel, in referring to the first of the USFS HC-130Hs which began spraying retardant on fires this summer, described it as “equipped with the obsolete MAFFS II dispersant system and operated without appropriate FAA oversight.” The MAFFS system uses compressed air to force the retardant out of the 3,000-gallon tank. Spraying the liquid, rather than allowing gravity to let it fall from the tank, breaks up the retardant into small droplets which does not penetrate tree canopies as well as a conventional gravity-powered system. The plans are to eventually replace the MAFFS tanks with conventional gravity systems, but the Air Force, the agency converting the aircraft into air tankers, has been dithering about the contracts for the retardant system since July of 2014, without any result so far.

Mr. Zerkel argued that the federal fire aviation fleet should operate their aircraft under the same standards they require of their contractors, FAA Part 121. The Chair of the Committee, Senator Lisa Murkowski from Alaska, the state in which Lynden Air Cargo is based, agreed, saying the current system “is absolutely unacceptable. You go with your highest standard.”

Lynden Air Cargo has skin in the game. The company took one of their seven L-382 cargo planes, a civilian version of the Hercules C-130, and spent $4.5 million, according to Mr. Zerkel, to retrofit it as an air tanker and train personnel to fly and maintain it. That aircraft is leased to Coulson who operates it as Air Tanker 132, currently on a firefighting contract in New South Wales, Australia. It was disqualified from competing for the USFS next-gen Version 2 air tanker contract earlier this year because part of the Supplemental Type Certificate had not been awarded from the Federal Aviation Administration by the USFS deadline, which was a couple of months before the contracts were awarded.

Mr. Zerkel said, “The commercial aerial firefighting industry is entirely capable of providing all of the Forest Service’s Large Air Tanker requirements at considerably less expense than the current planned use of C-130H aircraft.” And further, “The non-regulated, public aircraft format, proposed for the government owned large air tanker fleet is inherently less safe than the rigorous standards the commercial fleet must adhere to and has set an unfair double standard.

Chris MaischAnother witness from Alaska brought up the issue of inconsistent “carding”, or qualification of fire aviation assets. John “Chris” Maisch, the Alaska State Forester who was also representing the National Association of State Foresters, provided some examples of problems with “carding” individual pilots and aviation platforms.

  • Colorado sent its multi-mission fire detection and mapping aircraft, which was approved by the Forest Service in its Region 2, to Oregon where it had to be carded again by Forest Service Region 6.
  • A state of Alaska contract helicopter based out of California had been carded at the beginning of the fire season by the Forest Service and had to be re-carded by the Department of Interior’s Office of Aircraft Services when it reported to Alaska for work.

The video recording of the hearing can be viewed at the Committee’s web site.

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UPDATE: On November 19, 2015 we heard from Richard B. Zerkel, President of Lynden Air Cargo, who testified at the hearing. He wanted to make it clear that he does not recommend that the U.S. Forest Service operate their air tankers under CFR Part 121. But he would like to see them under CFR Part 137 Agricultural Aircraft Operations that covers aerial dispensing. Failing that, Mr. Zerkel thinks they should at least be required to obtain Supplemental Type Certificates for all modifications and document any maintenance and or operational training which should then be available to the general public.

FAA: Wildfire and drones don’t mix

WASHINGTON – Responding to recent incidents in which unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), also known as “drones,” interfered with manned aircraft involved in wildland firefighting operations, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is supporting the U.S. Department of the Interior and U.S. Forest Service in their simple message to drone operators: If you fly; we can’t.

 “Flying a drone near aerial firefighting aircraft doesn’t just pose a hazard to the pilots,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “When aircraft are grounded because an unmanned aircraft is in the vicinity, lives are put at greater risk.” 

Often a temporary flight restriction (TFR) is put in place around wildfires to protect firefighting aircraft. No one other than the agencies involved in the firefighting effort can fly any manned or unmanned aircraft in such a TFR. Anyone who violates a TFR and endangers the safety of manned aircraft could be subject to civil and/or criminal penalties. Even if there is no TFR, operating a UAS could still pose a hazard to firefighting aircraft and would violate Federal Aviation Regulations.

“The FAA’s top priority is safety. If you endanger manned aircraft or people on the ground with an unmanned aircraft, you could be liable for a fine ranging from $1,000 to a maximum of $25,000,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “Know the rules before you fly. If you don’t, serious penalties could be coming your way for jeopardizing these important missions.”

Since so many people operate unmanned aircraft with little or no aviation experience, the FAA is promoting voluntary compliance and working to educate UAS operators about how they can operate safely under current regulations and laws. The agency has partnered with industry and the modeling community in a public outreach campaign called “Know Before You Fly.” 

The campaign recently reminded UAS users to respect wildfire operations. The National Interagency Fire Center also posted a video warning for users to, “Be Smart. Be Safe. Stay Away.” 

Additionally, the FAA provided guidance to law enforcement agencies because they are often in the best position to deter, detect, immediately investigate, and, as appropriate, pursue enforcement actions to stop unauthorized or unsafe unmanned aircraft operations.

So remember this simple message around wildfires: If you fly, they can’t. Keep your drone on the ground and let firefighters and aircraft do their jobs. And, if you see someone flying a drone near a wildfire, report it immediately to local law enforcement and the nearest FAA Flight Standards District Office with as much information as possible. You can find the closest FAA office at: http://www.faa.gov/about/office_org/field_offices/fsdo/.

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