Firefighting– a High Profile FAA demonstration case to show UAS nation voluntary compliance’s value

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The recent ridiculous drone pilots who have been flying near forest fires pose both a challenge and an opportunity for the FAA.

One of the most salient issues about the FAA’s enforcement of its UAS rules is the perception within the drone community that those strictures are unenforceable. Clearly, the FAA has limited human resources and regulatory seines to capture the malefactors. The operation of UASs which interfere with firefighting aircraft may provide a high visibility platform in which the FAA may demonstrate its ability to detect violations and the consequences to such illegal flights.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-California) wrote to the Administrator about this problem. He cited US Forest Service and California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection problems fighting a fire in the San Bernardino Mountains, and urged that the final Part 107 rule include a specific prohibition against such UAS flights.

The FAA issued an explicit warning to drone pilots flying in the proximity of such events. Administrator Huerta specifically threatened sanctions for violation of this notice:

“The FAA’s top priority is safety. If you endanger manned aircraft or people on the ground with an unmanned aircraft, you could be liable for a fine ranging from $1,000 to a maximum of $25,000…Know the rules before you fly. If you don’t, serious penalties could be coming your way for jeopardizing these important missions.”

The same message mentioned that the FAA has issued and will continue to issue temporary flight restrictions (TFR) blocking all unauthorized aircraft from these areas. Here’s an example of one issued for an Alaska blaze. The FAA issued a reminder to UAS users to avoid wildfire operations.


Given all these public notices and in light of the relatively identifiable location of these emergencies, the FAA might consider sending its own resources to surveil any illegal UAS flights at these forests. While the FAA warning mentioned that law enforcement agencies should try to detect these impermissible flights, FAA investigators have greater expertise to collect the requisite facts to support an aggressive and immediate enforcement action.

Past practices of the agency’s field personnel have devoted considerable time and resources to take “highlight” enforcement actions against air carriers. Similar profile prosecutorial efforts are warranted here both by the danger of these UAS flights (judges will recognize the exigency of this situation) and the need to let the drone nation know that the FAA can and will enforce its rules. Targeting these illegal flights will get the UAS nation’s attention.

Nothing so motivates compliance than the assessment of a $25,000 penalty. When such a campaign successfully cracks down on one or more violators, a press release, with proper quotes from Secretary Foxx and Administrator Huerta, can herald the fine and note that the individuals, who were found to have violated the rules, will be barred from getting a commercial UAS authority under Part 107 and related regulations.

In today’s SMS culture enforcement is not regarded as a primary regulatory tool. Given the general UAS indifference to voluntary compliance, using the firefighting platform and enforcement may demonstrate to drone pilots that there is value in adhering to these rules.


ARTICLE: FAA: Wildfires And Drones Don’t Mix

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