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Shoot down drones or fine users? California weighs two bills about drone interference over emergency scenes

Author: Randall D. Larson

Date: 2015-08-19
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Based on a story by Mike Luery/KCRA Sacramento


The ongoing controversy over drones - also known as unmanned vehicle systems - has reached the state legislature in California as two bills have been introduced about what to do about them.  One might authorize the shooting down of drones interfering in emergency operations, the other specifies fines and jail time for violators.


These small aerial vehicles have grown very popular in recent years, as photographers are able to shoot stunning, high-definition aerial photos of landscapes and events.  It’s when these drones interfere with emergency operations that they become controversial and endanger emergency responders.

Cal Fire documented 12 separate intrusions this summer where drones got in the way of firefighter pilots, forcing them to land their planes and causing delays in getting water or fire retardant on burning homes and wildlands.  "Two weeks ago, one of our DC-7 air tankers came within 50 feet of a drone when it was returning from the Rocky Fire, 50 feet away from a mid-air collision, potentially killing the pilot and the air crew and placing people on the ground at grave risk," Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott told KCRA 3.

This week, lawmakers at the state Capitol began to tackle the sensitive topic of how privately owned drones can be regulated, especially when they fly into the air above police and fire emergency operations.  SB168 was introduced by Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Roseville, which endows immunity to public safety crews who take down a drone if it is considered to pose an imminent threat to emergency personnel fighting a fire. “We're very concerned about drones getting in the way of an aircraft, whether it's a helicopter or fixed wing aircraft," Gaines said. "It could actually cause the aircraft to crash."

Another bill that Gaines introduced, SB167, would impose $5,000 in fines and up to six months county jail time for illegal use of drones during a wildfire.  Both bills appear to have some support from both Democrats and Republicans.

At the same time drones have been imposing a nuisance, they have also been helpful as an intelligence gathering platform, relaying critical information to emergency responders, as was done last April in the aftermath of the earthquake near Kathmandu, Nepal.  Drone manufacturers defended their devices at the state Capitol this week, and Kelly Huston, deputy director for the state’s Office of Emergency Services, noted that "We see them being beneficial in areas like search and rescue."  Huston told KCRA 3 that drones can help first responders to "speed up the process of finding people who are missing."

For example, a year ago, a Wisconsin man who suffers from dementia and had been missing three days was found in 20 minutes with the help of a drone.

Less than a month ago, the California National Guard was requested to launch a remotely-piloted aircraft to search the El Dorado National Forest for a missing person.

As the discussions continue in Sacramento, what is clear thus far is, despite the value of drones and remotely-piloted aircraft as valuable tools in emergency management and search & rescue, the ongoing incursion of drones flown by private citizens into emergency airspace remains a problem in need of a solution.

As for the two bills regulating use of and response to drones, hearing dates have not yet been set.

See our related story:

Incident Command and Control in the Age of the UAV: The Problem of Drones in Operation Over Emergency Operations

See related news story from California OES:

New Tip Line Will Help Crack Down on Dangerous Drones During Emergencies
Californians asked to help expose drone operators who threaten public safety




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