FBI using system to detect drones over wildfires, and the pilots

Lakeview IHC drone Operation
Lakeview Hotshots using a drone to assist with a burn operation in Alaska in 2019.

This article was first published at Fire Aviation.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is using a new system to help wildland firefighters by detecting, identifying, and neutralizing drones that are illegally interfering with firefighting activities.

It is very dangerous to fly a drone near a fire at which helicopters or fixed wing aircraft are operating. A collision could impact the windscreen or damage the engine, props, rotors, or flight control surfaces, causing a crash. If a drone is seen near a fire the standard operating procedure is to remove all aircraft from the fire area until it is confirmed that the drone has left the scene. In other words, it interferes with firefighting efforts.

The FBI is working with the Los Angeles County Fire Department to use a system that can detect a drone flying over a fire within 30 seconds of it being launched.

From CNN:

“When the detection equipment finds the drone and identifies the operator’s location, we can very rapidly get that information to a ground intercept team who can then go make contact with that drone operator and essentially get them to stop flying that drone,” said James Peaco III, the weapons of mass destruction coordinator for the FBI’s Los Angeles field office.

With a special sensor, the team can set up a boundary as large or as small as desired and get notified if a drone flies into that area, instantly obtaining precise details such as elevation, direction, speed as well as where the drone took off from and where the controller is currently standing.

“The first thing we do is order them to bring the drone back, explain to him that there’s a wildfire and flying that drone during a wildland fire is actually a federal felony,” Peaco said.

It’s a federal crime punishable by up to 12 months in prison to interfere with firefighting efforts on public lands. Additionally, Congress has authorized the FAA to impose a civil penalty of up to $20,000 against any drone pilot who interferes with wildfire suppression, law enforcement, or emergency response operations. The FAA treats these violations seriously, and will immediately consider swift enforcement action for these offenses.

According to the US Forest Service, in 2019 at least 20 documented instances of unauthorized drone flights over or near wildfires in seven states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Washington and Minnesota) resulted in aerial firefighting operations being temporarily shut down nine times. There is no centralized national mechanism to report unauthorized UAS flights over wildfires, so these are only the incidents that wildfire management agencies have become aware of, there are likely more that are not known about.

Suspending air operations could decrease the effectiveness of wildfire suppression operations, allowing wildfires to grow larger, and in some cases, unduly threaten lives, property, and valuable natural and cultural resources. The effects of lost aircraft time could be compounded by flames moving into untreated terrain.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tom and Gerald.