Los Angeles Times

Fighting fires— and drones


It is obviously reckless — as well as illegal— to fly personal drones in a wildfire zone, whether for fun or profit, and yet here we are: At least twice in the last month, firefighti­ng aircraft were hampered from dropping water or chemicals on Southern California brush fires after recreation­al drones buzzed into the area. Most recently, water drops were halted Friday on the Cajon Pass fire, shortly before it jumped the freeway; in June, drones disrupted flights during the Lake fire in the San Bernardino Mountains.

Nor were these the first times that drones impeded firefighti­ng efforts. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, personal drones posed dangers to aircraft in at least two fires last year as well.

The soaring popularity of hobby drones has already raised concerns about personal privacy and public nuisance. But the potential for serious public endangerme­nt adds a whole new level of worry.

Two bills are being introduced in the Legislatur­e to curb this irresponsi­ble use of drones. Both have commendabl­e intentions and would impose policies worth considerat­ion, but given the current status of drone technology and regulation, they seem premature and unlikely tomake a significan­t difference.

SB 167 would increase the penalty for flying drones in wildfire zones from the current $ 1,000 fine to $ 2,000, or in extreme cases to $ 5,000. But if scofflaws are willing to ignore an already hefty $ 1,000 fine, they’re unlikely to change their behavior in fear of the higher amount. And some hobbyists don’t know the law, though it’s their responsibi­lity to do so.

The bigger problem is the difficulty of finding the operator in order to enforce the law. Without transponde­rs on each drone to identify its owner, and black boxes to record its flights, it can be too easy for the person at the controls to remain unknown. Both of those technologi­es are readily available, but they are included in very few personal drones, and the Federal Aviation Administra­tion has so far been unwilling to require them.

Companion bill SB168 would release public safety agencies from liability if they destroy a drone during such emergency situations as a wildfire, medical evacuation or search- and- rescue operation. No sympathy for the drone owner, but the bill does nothing to define safe ways for doing this. Causing a drone to crash could create a fire problem of its own. There are technologi­es for jamming drone frequencie­s in a way that force a safe landing — but again, most drones aren’t required to include that technology.

In other words, the bigger questions about how and when to regulate dangerous drone use must be resolved by the federal government. The FAA has been moving slowly on these issues, but these most recent threats to public safety showthat it’s running out of time to make some crucial decisions.

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