Drones are an increasing safety hazard at wildfires; geofencing may help

drone forest fire
A drone flying over a wildfire. Photo by the Bureau of Land Management.

By Ryan Maye Handy and Bill Gabbert

Since 2014 instances of drones shutting down air operations over wildfires has increased despite repeated warnings to the public.

While there is no formal system to track the number of times Unmanned Aircraft Systems, or drones, have invaded the airspace over wildfires, the U.S. Forest Service has managed to collect some numbers thanks to public reports. And the numbers seem to show that warnings to not fly drones over wildfires often go unheeded.

“In spite of increased and ongoing public education from the interagency fire community and incident management teams by way of the internet, social media, press conferences, news release, etc., about the risks and hazards hobby drone operators present to aerial firefighting aircraft, the public continues flying hobby drones near or over wildfires,” said Mike Ferris, a public information officer with the Forest Service.

Earlier this summer, following a spate of issues with drones flying over California wildfires, the National Interagency Fire Center issued a statement cautioning drone pilots that they could face criminal charges if caught flying drones over a fire. Then in July, CALFire made its first arrest of a drone operator, who now faces a misdemeanor charge in connection to flying the drone over a California wildfire. Ferris did not know about criminal charges against other drone pilots in connection to wildfires.

Forest Service officials say that the small aircraft pose a tremendous threat to the low-flying planes that work above firefighters. A collision of a drone and an airtanker, for instance, could be disastrous, Ferris said.

“Aerial firefighting aircraft, such as air tankers and helicopters, fly at very low altitudes, the same as UAS flown by the general public, creating the potential for mid-air collision that could be fatal for aviation and/or ground firefighters, as well as members of the public,” he said.

Nonetheless, problems have persisted. In the past two months, drones flying too close to wildfires grounded planes in New Mexico, Arizona, Minnesota, Alaska, Utah, Montana and California. This year, there have been 34 instances of drones encroaching on firefighting airspace, and 12 times planes were grounded, according to the Forest Service.  According to the June Wildfire Airspace Situations report, aircraft on three fires in Utah were grounded the span of two days in July due to drone activity.

Those numbers are up slightly from 2015, when drones were spotted near wildfires 21 times in five states–California, Colorado, Oregon, Utah, and Washington, Ferris said.

“This resulted in aerial firefighting operations being temporarily shut down on at least ten occasions, which may have caused wildfires to grow larger and unduly threaten lives, property, and valuable natural and cultural resources,” Ferris said.

This summer, when nearby drones forced the shutdown of air operations in Montana and California, aircraft were grounded for 30 to 45 minutes. Although drones briefly shut down air operations over the Soberanes fire in Northern California, the upset came at a crucial time—just days after the massive fire exploded and was burning with little to no containment. The fire’s incident management team has made anti-drone warnings a permanent fixture on its InciWeb site, where it posts all updates on the fire.

One of the largest manufacturers of drones, DJI, has incorporated a geofencing feature into their drone control software that prevents flying into locations where they don’t belong. The system was recently upgraded to keep the pilotless aircraft away from airports, prohibited and restricted airspace, national security sites, prisons, and power plants, among other locations. Additionally, when a user is connected to the internet, the software will provide live guidance on Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) including those relating to forest fires, major league sporting events, and other changing conditions.

The Department of Interior has implemented a prototype of a system, some might call it a beta version, that provides data allowing the drone manufacturers to add another layer of geofencing. It provides near real time information about the location of wildfires, using data collected by the Integrated Reporting of Wildland-Fire Information (IRWIN) service. During the prototype year, the data is supplied to two volunteer, commercial mapping providers that support drone operations, AirMap and Skyward. It is available on the web and as an IOS app (Airmap) that allows anyone to use the information to avoid wildfires. The fire location data is available online and in the app as soon as the local dispatcher loads the fire location data into the system. It appears on the maps as a 2-mile radius circle along with TFRs.

A screenshot from the Airmap website showing the area of the Clayton Fire at Lower Lake, California August 15, 2016. The small red circle is the 2-mile radius that appears as soon as the dispatcher enters the location. The larger circle is the TFR.

As long as the DJI drone operator is connected to the internet, the system will warn the operator not to fly into the area, even before a TFR is established. However at this stage, during the prototype or beta period, 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.

It is hoped that other drone manufacturers, in addition to DJI, will begin to use the real time geofencing data available from the Department of the Interior. But, a weak link in the system is that the drone operator must be connected to the internet to obtain the near real time updates for wildfire location information. Many wildfires occur in remote settings without internet access; however, responsible pilots, whether flying manned or unmanned aircraft, will do pre-flight planning to identify potential hazards along the route prior to their flight. Drone operators are reminded if you see smoke in the vicinity, leave your drone at home. Because, if you fly, firefighting aircraft can’t.

Meanwhile, it seems that the public’s fascination with drone technology drives them to keep flying drones over wildfires. A quick search on Youtube.com turns up many cautionary clips warning drone operators to stay away from wildfires—but there are just as many clips of wildfire footage captured by drones.

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2 thoughts on “Drones are an increasing safety hazard at wildfires; geofencing may help”

  1. While I think this is a good Idea (Geo Fencing), I hope that what ever rules are drafted, care is taken to allow for authorized users to still be able to fly(Carded and or authorized government UAS pilots). I think some use needs to be allowed. With the new credentialing / licensing for drones by the FAA, I believe the airspace can be shared under certain circumstances by “qualified” UAS pilots. While there are no universal standards yet (NWCG), this is something I hope we all are considering for the future.

    In the area I work, we have been experimenting with the DJI platform. Granted, the parameters are very strict and narrow, communication protocols are enacted when an aircraft is launched and supervisors are made aware on ground when a small UAS is in the air in addition to dispatch to warn incoming aircraft of the current airspace use. That said, if we restrict this too much, we will have a very difficult time developing new procedures and uses for a vary valuable platform.

    We have already realized the important value in our area from the investigative perspective. Identifying burn patterns and POI to also seeing where a spot fire occurred that was missed and did not have line around it were all captured by this platform. Also, when a traditional helicopter or spotter is not available, we have found getting up 400 feet for a quick look has been very helpful.

    Not everyone will have access to the Colorado Pilatus and the $$$$ for the expensive military type UAS.

    Just a couple of thoughts. Any takers on this one?

    1. Mike-

      The DJI page linked to in the article explains how a “locked” area can be accessed:

      The drone will by default not fly into or take off in, locations that raise safety or security concerns. However, in order to accommodate the vast variety of authorized applications, the new system will also allow users who have verified DJI accounts to temporarily unlock or self-authorize flights in some of those locations. The unlock function will not be available for sensitive national-security locations such as Washington, D.C. or other prohibited areas.

      Unlocking will require a DJI user account verified with a credit card, debit card or mobile phone number.

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