California News Service
SACRAMENTO, Calif. – On Saturday, firefighting planes had to halt operations for half an hour on the massive, deadly Sand Fire in Santa Clarita to track down a person flying a drone in the fire zone. On Monday, the federal government announced a program to make a dent in the problem. So far this year, drones have interfered with operations on more than 15 other fires.
The Department of the Interior is partnering with private companies to get fire locations mapped out and sent to DJI, the country’s biggest drone manufacturer. Christie Wiley, the communications program lead for the office of Wildland Fire within the U.S. Department of the Interior explained what happens next.
“They put what’s called a geo-fence or a virtual boundary around that fire,” she said. “And so if you have a drone that goes across that boundary, then they send an alert to their drone operators.”
The drone operators will get an immediate email or a text alert telling them to back off. Earlier this year, the government put a new system in place where fire managers report drones to the Federal Aviation Administration, which alerts law enforcement officers, who track down the violators. By law all hobby drones must be registered with authorities.
Wiley said drones are very dangerous because they can crash into a plane, and hurt even more people if either the drone or plane comes hurtling toward the ground.
“They’re a hazard to the aircraft flying and they’re a hazard to the firefighters on the ground,” she added. “The fire managers do not shoot drones down. They will just discontinue the air operations.”
Wiley said this new system is a prototype that will be improved and expanded by the 2017 fire season. By then, the drone manufacturers hope to be able to actually prevent drones from operating in restricted airspace once they reach a geo-fence perimeter. The system could also be used to protect places with restricted airspace like prisons and nuclear reactors.