Lawmakers, Drone Advocates Disagree Over UAVs Impeding Firefighting Efforts

Though the FAA is expected to address emerging safety issues when it adopts regulations to incorporate drones into the national airspace, an action expected in early 2017, California lawmakers might consider taking action on its own.

by Timm Herdt, Ventura County Star, Calif. / August 20, 2015
(TNS) -- Just this summer in California, there have been a dozen incidents in which drones flying over wildfires have caused delays or interruptions in airborne firefighting activities, and CalFire Chief Ken Pimlott told lawmakers Tuesday he fears a collision is inevitable unless strong action is taken.

Brandon Schulman, an executive with DJI Technology, a leading drone manufacturer, offered a very different story.

Last year in Connecticut, he said, a drone hobbyist flew his aircraft over a quarry fire and was able to provide video showing the location of explosives inside the quarry, allowing firefighters to extinguish the blaze safely.

Those two stories represented the extremes of a situation explored by a joint legislative committee at a hearing designed to examine what state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson described as “the good, the bad and the ugly” of the use of drones in emergency situations.

Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, chaired a hearing that was inspired by a rash of incidents this summer, including a 20-minute delay in fighting a San Bernardino County fire that soon thereafter jumped Interstate 15 and set fire to 20 vehicles and a near-miss in Fresno last week in which a helicopter carrying a patient to a hospital narrowly avoiding colliding with a drone.

Tuesday’s hearing came as lawmakers are considering legislation to establish steep penalties against drone operators whose aircraft interfere with emergency operations and pondering other possible actions, such as requiring operators of unmanned aircraft to first obtain a license.

“We cannot afford to delay any further this discussion,” Jackson said.

The committee heard testimony from 16 witnesses, including fire and law enforcement officers, drone enthusiasts, a representative of NASA and a co-founder of Drone University, an institution that offers training in drone operations.

It was evident that the training and qualifications of drone operators varies wildly.

Ventura County Sheriff’s Office Cmdr. Chris Dunn testified that his agency, one of the first nationwide to receive Federal Aviation Administration approval to operate a drone throughout its jurisdiction, has established rigorous safety standards. They include always keeping the craft within line of sight of the operator, contacting local airport control towers before a drone is launched, initiating radio contact with pilots if an airplane is sighted and grounding the aircraft if another unmanned vehicle is spotted in the air.

In contrast, said Bruce Parks of the Silicon Valley chapter of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, many amateur operators are clueless about what safety precautions they should be taking.

“Some of these hobbyists,” Parks said, “they really don’t get that they’re flying an aircraft.”

Lawmakers on the panel made clear they have little patience with irresponsible operators.

Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa, wanted to know whether any of the operators who interfered with firefighters have been apprehended and asked, “Where was your common sense?”

Sen. Richard Roth, D-Riverside, a retired Air Force general, said pilots such as himself are frightened by the prospect of colliding with a drone.

“They’re not toys anymore,” Roth said. “I’m not sure we shouldn’t have training for these operators.”

Many of the emerging safety issues are expected to be addressed by FAA when it adopts regulations to incorporate drones into the national airspace, an action expected in early 2017.

But lawmakers heard several suggestions Tuesday that California might consider taking on its own, such as requiring drones to be equipped with transponders that would allow emergency personnel to immediately identify their owner, requiring owners to undergo training and receive a license before being allowed to operate a drone and enacting stiff penalties for irresponsible operation.

“Up until now, it’s been the Wild, Wild West out there,” said Assemblyman Jim Cooper, a former Sacramento County sheriff. “It can’t be that way. Public safety trumps the private right to fly a drone.”

©2015 Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.