“Drones” Endanger Airborne Wildfire Fighting

usdaThere is no denying that personal drones are in the public eye these days. Unfortunately they tend to receive more negative press than positive. This past weekend, there were news reports of a wildfire in California. Efforts to fight the fire were hampered when no less than five drones were spotted flying in the area. Some reports even stated that two of the drones followed the firefighting aircraft as they returned to local airports. This is the fourth time this month firefighting planes have been grounded due to unmanned aircraft in the area. It’s not a new problem either, I’ve subscribed to a google alert on the word “Drone” for over a year now, and it is rare for a week to go by without a hobby drone flying somewhere they shouldn’t.

The waters are muddied by the fact that mass media loves a good drone story. Any pilotless vehicle is now a drone, much to the chagrin of radio control enthusiasts who were flying before the Wright brothers. In this case there were two fields relatively close to the action – Victor Valley R/C Park, about 10 miles away, and the Cajun Pass slope flying field, which overlooks the section of I-15 that burned. There are claims on the various R/C forums and subreddits that it may have been members from either of those groups who were mistaken as drones in the flight path. Realistically though, Victor Valley is too far away. Furthermore, anyone at the Cajun pass flying site would have been fearing for their own safety. Access requires a drive through 3 miles of dirt road just to reach the site. Not a place you’d want to be trapped by a wildfire for sure. Who or whatever was flying that day is apparently lying low for the moment – but the problem persists.

Rules and Regulations

In the USA, the FAA rules are (finally) relatively clear for recreational drone operations. The layman version can be found on the knowbeforeyoufly.org website, which was put together by the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), and other groups in partnership with the FAA.

The problem comes down to common sense on the part of the drone pilot. I know that Hackaday readers are some of the smart ones. The problem tends to be the person who bought a high-end drone from a photo or electronics store, and is either oblivious to the danger their new craft can pose, or is more interested in getting footage they can sell to the media. That’s right, we’re living in the age of the Paparazzi Drone. These sorts of people simply didn’t exist a few years back, as one needed many hours of practice just to get in the air. With today’s GPS enabled systems, anyone can be flying right out of the box.

airmapHow do we solve the problem? Information and self policing are the first weapons at our disposal. If you see someone doing something dangerous, let them know, and offer advice. Who knows, you might end up with a new flying buddy.

On the information front, several websites, such as Don’t Fly Drones Here, No Fly Drones (UK) and others have sprung up to show the current exclusion zones. Personally, The best resource I’ve found of for checking local restrictions in the USA is Airmap.io. While Airmap requires a login to access the site, the features are worth the annoyance. Local airports and their exclusion zones are shown, with a phone number for the tower. Temporary restrictions issued via Notice To Airmen (NOTAM) can also be shown. For instance, while researching this article, Airmap showed an exclusion zone in my area for a VIP visit in New York City. One click took me directly to the NOTAM with all the information I needed. Add one of these sites to your checklist before going out flying.

What else can be done to combat the problem of drones in the wrong place? Sound off with your own ideas down in the comments.

96 thoughts on ““Drones” Endanger Airborne Wildfire Fighting

  1. I don’t know much about aircraft/airspace, so this may be a simple question, but don’t helicopters fly at a higher altitude than most hobby drones? And if so why don’t they just dump water regardless, it seems like worrying about damaging hobbyists crafts seems pretty pointless at that point. Firefighters will already break windows or ram cars out of the way if parked illegally in the way of fire hydrants. I assume this isn’t the case, and there are other factors that I am unaware of but I’m just curious. Can someone fill me in on why a helicopter is grounded by a few small drones?

    1. I think the helicopters don’t have much to worry about because the downwash would (I assume) knock the drone out of the air if it gets too close. Instead, it’s the flying tankers that release the water that need to worry because they fly close to the ground to get the maximum effect. If a drone gets sucked into one of the engines, a bunch of people are going to have a bad day.

      1. By the time tankers are required to flu low and slow over a fire, the birds are already gone or roasted.
        And as mentioned, its the metal bits.
        Also, helicopters are not immune. Any that run on jet turbines will have the same intake issue as a plane.
        Finally there is the velocity issue. A Drone strike to a moving airplane, even not to the engine, will penetrate and cause a lot of damage. Many of these planes are antiques and repairs get more expensive every year.

    2. I can sort of see your point that if a helicopter or plane runs into a quadcopter that the quadcopter would probably lose. That said, would you think nothing of slamming into a qcopter at 60 mph with the windshield of your car? Or if you had the window open, stopping one with your face?

      As for your first point about altitude, the drops of water/fire retardant are often done at treetop level to reduce dispersion during the drop–they want a concentrated drop on target.

      These firefighters and pilots do a dangerous enough job without yahoos adding any extra danger.

        1. That makes sense. I figured firefighters would opt for a higher altitude drop simply because they have enough water that dispersion would be more beneficial. I was also unaware that planes are used, obviously it makes sense that drones could cause massive damage to propellers.

          1. I live about 15 miles from where the Southern California fires took place (it’s been nicknamed, “The North Fire” and consumed about 3500 acres, no serious injuries). Interesting in this case, the fire “jumped” across/onto a major highway destroying about 20 vehicles on the highway in the process (additional damage to structures and other vehicles nearby). More to the point, with the high winds common to the area (20-30mph), the planes dropping fire retardant indeed had to fly much lower to the ground to avoid the chemical dispersion noted above. My understanding is that the drones interfere with the suppressor planes, not with the helicopters.

            New legislation is pending; however, some additional things might help, such as news organizations refusing to pay for drone video footage and sites like YouTube refusing to post such videos (don’t know how that would happen)

          2. With the intense heat you need a heck of a lot of water to put anything out. Dispersion is not beneficial.

            Planes are more frequently used simply due to larger water carrying capacity

          3. @mmmdee
            Geeze, the story about the fire not only jumping a highway but roasting cars in the process conjures a pretty horrifying mental image. That’s the kind of stuff that’d put the fear of gods into prehistoric man. “Oh, ok, so Blastu the Lord of Destruction has come to personally wreck my shit. Guess that’s that, then.”

        2. Most aircraft for emergency services are turbine based, turboprop or turboshaft. Ingesting anything metal, even a small motor or battery pack into a turbine engine can cause very expensive damage.

        1. That must have been either a very slow plane or the drone was extremely fast. According to U.S. Forest Service spokesman John Miller “Two of the drones pursued our lead plane. One underneath, one actually flying over the top,”.

          A lead plane could very well be a Beechcraft twin engine or something to that extent. Cruising speed is around 200mph and stall speed around 80 mph. The top speed of say a DJI Phantom (drone) is 40 mph. Probably with a good tail wind.

          I own 4 multirotors and none of them approach 40 mph! (and I don’t fly in restricted air space, around people, or property)

          Something doesn’t add up here and with every single person carrying some kind camera or whatever, we never see photos of these incidents.

          Could it be that media just loves to incite fear into people for ratings? Nah… couldn’t be that. Could it be there was another reason the planes were called off because of some snafu and someone needed a good cover story to pass the blame off? No way! Government officials never, ever lie!

    3. An example of what could happen: the drone is a chunky one, it manages to hit and damage one of the rotors, forcing a crash landing in the midst of a raging forest fire.

        1. Helicopter rotors shatter easily. Carbon fiber or fiberglass, if it even so much as cracks with the tremendous radial forces on the rotor blade, it will sheer and tear apart.

      1. I’ve always been a fan of water/fire retardant bombers that don’t need to come to a full stop to reload…
        While the DC10 version carries 7.3 times the amount of litres that the 415 can, the 415 just needs to operate with access to body of water that is at least 1.5km long and at least 6ft deep. Once that condition is met, it can reload it’s 6100 litres of water in 12 seconds, then mix of not with retardant and drop.DC10 requires reloading while stopped at a runway.

        1. When I learned about the DC-10, everyone said having that one big splash of water works far better than a comparable quantity from multiple smaller drops from other platforms. The 415 has been around since 1993, so I wonder how many 415s firefighters would equate to one DC-10.

          1. according to wikipedia, the DC10’s capacity is 45000 litres and the 415’s is 6100 litres, so 7.3 times…(which I already said). But given the drought conditions that California is dealing with, i doubt the 415 would be very effective…It needs a relatively large body of water to get it’s water.

      2. The Martin Mars flying boats can only drop 7200 gallons at once, not quite as much as the DC-10’s 12,000 gallons, but they can pick it up in about 25 seconds. Apparently, if you are caught under a water drop, you should lie down facing where the plane is coming from and clench…

    4. The helicopters and fixed wing aircraft have to drop from a low altitude so that their payload doesn’t disperse too much. In either case with the number of drone videos on YouTube of them going through and above clouds clearly illustrates that hobby drones are capable of flying at altitudes that GA aircraft operate.
      It is just a matter of time before the FAA shuts the entire hobby down because of irresponsible operators.

    1. the butterfly flying in front of you, though appearing larger than the 737 flying in front of you at a greater distance is, in fact, not larger than the 737…
      also- it’s a poster…. if it was all the right scale we would not be able to identify the meaning of the poster without a quick glance. Really I think the poster is laid out very nicely and makes it’s point very quickly.
      for reals…

  2. I think that a combination of radio jamming and shotgun shells are a good start. And if their videos end up on youtube, go after them with a HEFTY monetary fine and/or jail time.

        1. @Rex
          Eh, I wouldn’t let perfect be the enemy of good. There’s always gonna be morons, but education can raise the bar for how dumb you have to be to do it anyway. If that weren’t the case you’d never see changes in, say, the percentage of people who smoke cigarettes or drive drunk. Not that I’m equating those two; those are just two issues where concentrated public awareness, outreach, and, frankly, propagandizing (the good kind, imo) have had a measurable effect.

          Beyond just discouraging the people who’d do it, raising general awareness also alerts regular folks to the problem, increasing the likelihood of dumbassery getting reported.

        1. shootin’ ’em down is not a regulation – it is a result.
          Symptoms should be treated- that is why the FBI investigates all laser-in-cockpit situations. I’m
          not sure if they could figure out a way to fire back at those morons they may actually consider that a viable option, but they are certainly not just trying to educate and leave it at that.

          1. I shot one down over my property about three months ago. I am outside of city limits and have enough land to shoot. I used bird shot, and it shredded it pretty good. It was about 150 feet off the ground at the time, and had a camera on it. There are no other houses within a 1/4 mile from me.

            I called the county police and reported it. They said it was in my airspace, and I am outside of city limits, and the operator was nowhere to be seen, so I was within the law to destroy it. They wrote it up as a “trespassing and unauthorized surveillance” (peeping Tom) case.

            They stopped by and I gave them the pieces I picked up. They said they would try to track down the owner.

        2. Same here if you are going make a law then add a regulation for larger drones to be able to receive a transmission for emergency services aircraft telling them to get away.
          If the drone has an auto return function adding this would be easy to add as all the receiver needs to do is send a signal to the controller telling it to return in the same manner if radio contact was lost.

      1. I work for a Drone maker in Japan. Laws are about to get VERY interesting. It’s likely that by this time two years from now, two things will happen to fly any Drone over 300 grams:
        1: place an RFID tag over the Drone to authorize it to fly. This tag is registered.
        2: the Drone will not fly until it can connect to the net to read no fly zones from a net server, every power up. Is you have to tether it for a few moments to your cell.
        3: that no fly geofence list is updated live, and the Drone will not fly there, period. Until it receives confirmation from the same server that the zone is now free again.

        1. I can only shudder in horror to think what the nimrods in washington that brought us free healthcare can come up with for guidelines and laws for flying drones. While I agree something needs to be done, putting the fed in charge of it with old bastards that still can’t figure out VCRs and blinking microwaves is definitely NOT the answer.

          What happens when you want to fly a drone where cell service isn’t available? You’re out of luck? Freedom sometimes has it’s downfalls, this is one of those times. Want to get rid of drones in an area for firefighting? Take a regular helicopter up with a cop on the side with a shotgun… no drone I’m aware of is going to out fly or speed a real chopper, and take the thing down with a shot gun. You blow 2 out of the air, people will figure out real quick they shouldn’t be there, especially if you place an announcement on the radio, or get the word out ahead of time (prethinking any event) that any drones seen flying in the vicinity of a fire will be destroyed no questions asked.

        2. please link the legislation you are refering to. I don’t see how this scheme can work considering it would affect all of the guys flying helis etc too. Considering the amount of power the jijis wield in this country I don’t see anyone telling them to strap a ton of crap onto models the have been flying for decades.

      2. With the disease being the totalty uneducated and uncaring idiots and paparazzi wanna-be’s pulling irresponsible and possibly fatal stunts like this I doubt you’re gonna see any “cure” too soon. And that is something the Hacker Space community has to come to grips with: Making something like Quads easy to use with a correspondingly easy learning curve only broadens the population segment that can indulge using it and all that is implied. I’m not saying stop hacking under the guise of “there are some thing the common man just should not know”, but maybe the folks who made it all possible for the best of reasons should also be more proactive in providing guidance when the inevitable collateral damage starts.

    1. RF jamming affects only the user-control and video transmitting/receiving/FPV portion of the drone. If RF jamming could be initiated early and keep drones out of the area, that might work, but for drones already on-site, they could be pre-programmed to operate autonomously and include local video storage. I believe many drones already are programmed to “return home” upon RF failure.

        1. Really? I don’t dispute you, but from this article referring to the Boston Marathon bombing, http://goo.gl/AtYSrP (NBC news site), appears this quote: “Wireless experts say it’s unlikely authorities in Boston disrupted overall cellular service, but say that jamming signals to create cellular “dead zones” is an increasingly common tactic among federal agencies as well as state and local law enforcement in unique circumstances.” Besides, what’s “illegal” today for law enforcement, may not be tomorrow.

          1. As Ren points out, one can turn off cell service without actually jamming. Also, just because it’s illegal doesn’t mean that law enforcement agencies won’t do it. While they aren’t technically above the law, most of them think that they are, and who’s going to stop them?

  3. I think “No Fly” information should be included with every drone, like a warning label on cigarettes. It might be ignored, but at least they couldn’t say they never knew about it.

    1. Many popular GPS guided drones use software that voluntarily adheres to NFZ restrictions. I don’t think this is purely a crime of ignorance – either people are actively disabling those restrictions or they’re good enough with manual controls that they should know better.

      1. Yeah, it doesn’t affect the DIY machines. I don’t know if there is any open code out there that adheres to NOTAMs, but it would be trivially bypassed if the builder doesn’t want it.

          1. I suspect that’s true. Even if a DIY hobbyist or manufacturers incorporated built-in transponders or remote-activated “kill switches”, there’d be some way to bypass it. Now if fire-fighting aircraft could be equipped with sufficiently strong “screens” or grills in front of vulnerable prop and jet engines, that might be helpful.

      2. “Many popular GPS guided drones use software that voluntarily adheres to NFZ restrictions”

        So-called “no fly zones” are not always static. The temporary flight restrictions that surround aerial firefighting efforts, etc., can pop up within minutes, and remain in place for indeterminate amounts of time. The software solutions that now exist don’t allow for this fact. In fact, most just prevent you from flying with a few miles of an airport and above a certain altitude, which vastly oversimplifies the temporary and fixed flight restrictions that could exist in a given airspace.

  4. I will not be surprised if a close examination of this by the feds ends in a ban on balloon flights as well. There are plenty of drones with lower mass than legal balloon packages.

    1. Balloons don’t tend to stick around at a fixed location and/or altitude for very long, they rise above most smaller air traffic fairly quickly and then through the heavy metal airspace in not all that much longer. The specific danger of drones is that they can stick around at low altitudes for a long time.
      On top of that a balloon is fairly large, I’d probably be able to stop one when flying. A drone (especially if its at the same altitude or slightly below the plane) will be nearly invisible.

      1. You are using logic and facts. The FAA has been pretty good that way over the years, but this administration repsonds to sensationalism with regulation. If they pick a weight limit I just bet it will be across the board. Otherwise it will be “unfair”. You won’t see a balloon in the dark or the package hanging below. Maybe flying at night will be the limit. Just saying, I would not be suprised if ballon flights get caught up as collateral damage.

    1. These aren’t hobbyists flying these drones. These are media owned or media wannabes. The drones would also need to be FPV drones to follow aircraft among the trees or be controlled from someone in a media helicopter or some vantage point with line of sight.
      The sad part of all of this is that if they were in the hands of the firefighters they could provide useful information and help fight the fire.

      1. Flying UAS for commercial purposes requires some form of FAA approval. Here’s what the FAA FAQ has to say, “News media use of a UAS is not for hobby or recreational purposes, so FAA authorization is necessary. Media organizations may hire a company that already has a Section 333 exemption; that company would have to apply for and obtain a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) to fly in a particular block of airspace. Media organizations also may apply for their own Section 333 exemptions. See http://www.faa.gov/uas/legislative_programs/section_333/

  5. As usual rules and guidelines will only apply to people willing to follow them. If people are doing dumb stuff, they’ll keep on doing it. It’s just easier to prosecute with specific rules against it, which is after the event.

  6. I believe most of these are Mass Media trying to get footage for their new outlet. It’s very convenient that they can blame all of this on “Hobby Drones” even though no specific person has been identified as the culprit. Shame on you TMZ.

  7. As usual, a few moronic yahoos ruin it for the thousands of people out there who are legitimately and legally using their R/C aircraft without incident. I say R/C aircraft, because that’s what they are. To call something a “drone” just because it resembles a quad-copter is stupid.

  8. Thank you HaD. A few weeks ago there was a fire in the San Bernardino National Forest, with the command post just 4 blocks from my house. The fire was like 100 yards up a fire road from there. Yes, I live right in the foothills. It was a smaller fire, but they had I think 6 water dropping planes and choppers going. All were grounded for a bit due to a “drone” flying.

    The Lake Fire, in Big Bear, actually went from 24% contained to 19% due to drones grounding the fleet (including a dc-10 firefighting plane we have down here). The fleet was grounded, then night fell and they couldn’t resume til morning.

    Guys, these planes and choppers do not fly well above a drone’s altitude, as the firefighting aircraft fly as low as, sometimes, 100 feet above their drop zone. Or less. Imagine flying balls out into a smokey, low visibility, flaming area at only 80 feet altitude. Think you still wouldn’t be scared of a little drone in your way?

    Believe me, a fire in these hills is quite the asshole-puckering event for us. In ’02 this very house I live in, then my parents’ house, burned down in the Old Fire. I was here with my folks, with my family, at evacuation time. I will never, ever forget brushing burning embers off of my 1.5 year old son as we got in the car to leave. I literally have a couple of small, dot shaped burn scars where my t shirt didn’t protect my shoulders.

    And, speaking of “drones”, thanks again HaD for the crazyflie. It’s been a gas so far!

  9. Im skeptical of this..

    I think if hobby drone pilots really interrupted them, there would be a much shriller series of proclamations, ie “DRONES CAUSE LOSS OF LIFE\PROPERTY”, which they do when the military is operating them.

    The idea it is mostly media is compelling – with the media being effectively above the law in many ways. But given the MO of power, demonizing drones is going to become very common – and much of the criticism is bound to be manufactured.

    There are now hundreds of thousands of ‘drones’, and how many accidents have happened?

  10. “In this case there were two fields relatively close to the action – Victor Valley R/C Park, about 10 miles away”

    Can off-the-shelf drone transmitters do 10 miles range? I know I can build one (illegally), but is this kind of range common for mass produced drones? It would be well past line of sight, so a vision system would be required, or it would run autonomously.

    I have not heard of a commercial aircraft crashing due to a drone, but I’m sure the first time it happens, it would cause FAA legislation.

  11. Today a Lufthansa airplane nearly crashed into a quadcopter at Warschau airport (linking German news tickers here probably won’t help – use google if you don’t believe me).

    WHAT ARE THOSE IDIOTS DOING (and I am not screaming at the Lufthansa pilots for missing the “drone” here).

    I own several quadcopters. Although I would never fly them on airports (aside from the fact that this is, for good reason, forbidden in Germany any way), I would never fly them over inhabited areas or over people’s heads. Sure, I am lucky, I am living “out in the country” with farmland and woods around me, so it’s easy for me to say. But then again, I don’t shoot at people just for fun. Which, to me, these quadcopter idiots are coming quite close to.
    Never thought I would say this: It actually makes sense to discuss a ban on those things. Sad for all the thousands of people “behaving themselves” with their toys, but … the same goes for shotguns, doesn’t it?

  12. Stuff like this is clearly covered under ‘reckless endangerment’ and should be handled as such, period. No new regulations, no new laws, use the tools you already have and go after these idiots. I enjoy my hobby with multi-rotors, but I do it in a safe way over private property and within line of sight. These fools who buy a DJI Phantom on a whim and put people’s lives in danger for a few cheap shots are wrecking it for the majority.

    The actual hobbyists who have years invested into the hobby and equipment and who build and/or design their own model aircraft are not the problem and shouldn’t be punished by proxy or have their pursuits of happiness taken away from them.

  13. I apologize for my ignorance; however, is there any video showing “Drones” endangering airborne wildfire fighting?

    If so, I do agree that something have to be done, else, this smells like an excuse to have freedom to destroy any civilian drone filming an official. Similar to those states in which is illegal to film a police office even when such officer is using violence and may be braking the law.

  14. The main object is, (imho), the fact that a pilot, has his hands and feet full trying to do a drop and not get caught up in a fireball, to have to worry about a drone that might hit the wing or blade but even better yet, get sucked down into the intake of the engine of his aircraft….if you are pulling a harsh low level flight, dealing with the heat, smoke and pulling g’s , fire heat and smoke…. PLUS the stress of not deploying the retardant or water on a crew below, WHY should I have to put my life on the “risk ride” because some idiot wants to be the new Walter Cronkite (an old old news reporter) the Idiot should stay out of a the way of the people that are trying to save homes and possible lives. what is the difference between some wannabe photo journalist running into a building that is on fire trying to get video footage while he knocks down a fireman that is in the way of his precious shot for YouTube? Really folks, no difference, except, the idiot is not putting his life at risk…..I rest my case and I will shut up and get off my soapbox…….

  15. “Nah, don’t use a drone to explore impassible terrain, illegal dumping or help with search efforts with a basic flir… Use a drone to be a horrible human so you can post on FB and youtube le righteous cause.”

    Who cares, our basic public education was originally designed to make us obedient drones, ignore the fact that we are no longer in the industrial revolution content is the same, memorize, regurgitate and obey. No surprise in lacking critical thinking skills. A few more like this and drones will have to be registered and the operators must get a license like HAM operators.

    I do remember a nice story within the last 2 years, some girl was wandering around on federal parks and painted pictures with permanent acrylic paint all the while posting online, someone was savy enough to realize the meta-tag with all the GPS cords were embedded. I was really happy the judge sentenced her to revisit all graffiti sites and remove her garbage. Honestly, equip emergency services helicopters with SDR/Airsnort.

    Find the MAC address of the drone, and make a proper example of the person. Noise, Unauthorized Airspace, Trespassing, Obstruction and Reckless Endangerment of others, not to mention unlawful surveillance on federal lands during an emergency. Doesn’t matter if your drone didn’t see the police/fire/emergency tape, you are guilty of negligence.

    Responsible and lawful use of Rifle, Handgun, Shotgun, Pellet Gun, Laser, Maser, Herf, and WiFi jammers against drones should be encouraged. But that would offend… whomever wants to legitimize whatever false concerns the are pushing.

    It’s not about ones right to know what others are doing, it’s about the right to draw my curtains to sleep with my wife, or close the door to the stall so I can take a poop in peace. Why are all stalls stateside have 2 cm between door and threshold not to mention 1 foot of clearance of open floor.

    Kickstarter campaign to make mannequins with paintball gun head turrets. in 3.2.1. :D

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