As the California wildfires grow with devastating impacts on human life, property, and business, the potential unmanned aircraft system (UAS or drone) benefits and risks for firefighting (re)emerge. UAS stakeholders, including firefighters, are realizing the potential life-saving and fire response applications of UAS. Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and local emergency services remain on high alert for UAS that pose a risk to emergency responses.
As drone usage and opportunities have grown generally, the interactions between UAS and wildfires have also increased. For more than a decade, firefighters have explored using UAS to obtain wildfire information to maximize the use of firefighting resources. In 2007 and at the request of California emergency response agencies, NASA conducted long-endurance missions with a modified military drone over several Southern California wildfires, capturing thermal imagery to aid firefighters. NASA coordinated the flights with the FAA to avoid conflicts with other aircraft.
In the following years, only governments could use UAS for wildfire response, which the governments operated as “public aircraft” with less FAA oversight. Businesses were prohibited from using UAS until October 2014, when the FAA started allowing commercial flights through its “Section 333” exemption process. Concurrently, the availability and operation of UAS grew, largely by individuals using UAS for recreational use. In June 2016, the FAA issued new rules called Part 107 that further opened commercial operations and allowed businesses to operate without FAA review and approval.
Commercial UAS can provide significant benefits to wildfire responses. Businesses can monitor fire-prone areas. Insurance companies can assess fire damage to property. News agencies can report with dramatic footage of fire-damaged properties. Eventually, UAS could be a mobile platform to provide cell or internet service to areas that have lost communications infrastructure in the fire.
Under Part 107, however, UAS are prohibited from interfering with manned aircraft operations. During California’s 2015 fire season, manned firefighting aircraft were grounded to avoid civilian UAS operating in the vicinity of the fire. The problem continues today, as the FAA was recently reported to be investigating a civilian UAS flight in the vicinity of the Rice Ridge Fire. While the U.S. Forest Service and the National Interagency Fire Center have education campaigns to prevent these unauthorized flights, it is likely that local law enforcement will take a more active role in enforcement.
As UAS technology develops, including UAS identification and unmanned traffic management systems, the risks with commercial UAS and firefighting may be reduced, allowing more operations closer to the vicinity of a fire. The FAA, other federal agencies, and state and local agencies, however, will likely continue to oppose and prohibit any nearby flights because of the dynamic, minute-by-minute circumstances of a wildfire. The opportunities for use of UAS in direct firefighting applications will likely remain with the government agencies in the near-term, although opportunities for fire prevention and post-fire response are increasingly available to businesses under FAA’s less restrictive regulatory scheme for commercial operations.