Dreams of legally slapping drones out of the sky may come true

Wildfire roared over a Los Angeles area freeway that leads to Las Vegas on Friday, sending drivers running up a hill to get away, abandoning their cars behind them as they fled.

Some watched from the hill as smoke billowed and firefighters hosed down their cars to try to save them from burning.

What they didn’t see: helicopters dumping water buckets from above.

That’s because five drones flying close to the fire kept California firefighters from dispatching the helicopters for up to 20 minutes, as CNN reports.

This is the third time in recent weeks that drought-stricken California has been frustrated in fighting wildfire because of hobby drones flying in, presumably by people seeking video footage of dramatic scenes.

Another drone delayed efforts to battle a blaze in Mill Creek Canyon for at least 20 minutes on 12 July.

In June, a DC-10 carrying fire retardant wound up being diverted from a wildfire, forced to drop its load on another fire, while two smaller planes had to jettison their fire retardant because it made the aircraft too heavy to land.

Planes or helicopters being flown by pilots focusing on the fire and flying in smoky, low-visibility fire zones just can’t risk the danger of a mid-air collision with a drone, so firefighting aircraft get grounded when unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) get in the way.

These situations involve increased danger to life and property, as well as squandered time and money: the June scuppering of flights cost between $10,000 and $15,000 (approx £6300 – £9500).

They also frustrate the hell out of firefighters, who’ve tried education, reason and fines to coax drone enthusiasts into behaving both more wisely and more legally, given that some of the drones not only fly well above limits for unmanned aircraft flying in most situations but also because it’s illegal to fly unmanned aircraft in restricted airspace around a fire.

Shooting the things down is a tempting option, but it’s illegal.

But if lawmakers get their way, disabling or damaging UAS in emergency situations would be A-OK.

California legislators have introduced legislation that would exonerate emergency workers who take out drones.

Senate Bill 168, introduced by Assemblyman Mike Gatto and Senator Ted Gaines, would would grant “immunity to any emergency responder who damages an unmanned aircraft in the course of firefighting, air ambulance, or search-and-rescue operations.”

According to CIO, disabling the drones would involve using jamming technology to prevent in-range drones from making and establishing a connection with the GPS signals and radio waves they rely on to operate.

The problem is that jammers are indiscriminate.

Beyond just blocking the Wi-Fi and GPS signals to the drones, jammers can block calls and messages to mobile devices.

That’s why US law prohibits marketing, selling or using the devices on public or private property.

Although authorized federal agencies can use jammers in some situations, the prohibition against their use covers state and local governments, according to the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Gaines and Gatto weren’t immediately available to answer CIO’s questions about how the legislation will get around those prohibitions.

Companion legislation, Senate Bill 167, allows for drone operators to be fined and/or jailed for interfering with firefighting efforts.

Senator Gaines said in a statement that the situation now is “maddening” and that he “can’t believe that hobby drones are risking people’s lives to get videos on YouTube.”

If SB 168 passes, it’s going to be open hunting season for drones getting in the way during emergencies, with no worries about getting one’s pants sued off for taking them out, he said:

This bill will help make sure the skies are clear of drones and that the brave men and women fighting these fires can do their job of protecting the public without worrying about frivolous lawsuits.

The legislators’ move is sure to put ideas into heads over at the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

As The Register reports, there had been six near-miss run-ins between piloted craft and unlicensed drones in one year as of May.

All of those incidents involved a drone flying within 20 feet of airplanes at UK airports, some of them as high as 2000 feet above ground level.

The Register notes that pilots flying these toys could face five years of jail time if found guilty of recklessly endangering an aircraft, or any person therein.

In addition, the CAA has now launched what it’s calling the Dronecode to educate hobbyists of their responsibilities to fly safely and legally.

When introducing the California bills, Assemblyman Gatto offered what could read as a TL;DR version of the Dronecode:

Just because you have access to an expensive toy that can fly in a dangerous area doesn’t mean you should do it.

Image of drone courtesy of stevemart / Shutterstock.com.

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