Flying drones near wildfires could kill people: Don't do it

The bottom line is simple: Flying a drone near a wildfire could cause catastrophic damage. Don't do it.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Smoke from devastating wildfires is covering three quarters of the State of California. Property and lives are at stake like never before. Emergency response personnel and resources are stretched to their absolute limits.

And drone pilots are getting in the way.

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Yesterday, the FAA sent out a plea (and a warning), saying that drones and wildfires don't mix. Their plea is simple: Drones are getting in the way of firefighting operations.

Their warning is: If you're caught getting in the way of firefighting operations, civil penalties could exceed $20,000. Also, you could also be facing criminal prosecution.

Let's deconstruct this for a moment. What's really going on?

(Image: FAA)

Firefighting, especially with these huge wildfires, is being fought with a lot more than a bunch of hook and ladder trucks. In fact, pretty much the only way to battle fires across so many acres is to do so from the air.

The problem is that drones are getting in the way. If a helicopter or airplane pilot knows there's a drone in the area, they may have to delay a flight. You can imagine what might happen if the dropping of chemical retardant or water is delayed: Lot's more fire damage.

Even worse, if the airplane and helicopter pilots don't know there's a drone in their flightpath, a collision could occur. The result is horrifying on a variety of levels.

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An impact could send a full-sized aircraft out of control, cause it to crash, kill, or cause harm to people in the path on the ground, and possibly kill or injure the aircrews. And that's on top of not only delaying fire suppression activities, but now having a new disaster or emergency to contend with.

The FAA often issues temporary flight restrictions. The problem is, these TFRs may not be up to date in the area of a rapidly moving wildfire. So, even if there is no TFR listed, and even if your flight zone app tells you it's OK to fly, don't.

Look, I could belabor the point with examples and rules and regulations, but it's not necessary here. Just follow this guideline: If you're anywhere near a fire, don't fly. If you're launching your drone so you can see the fire in the distance, don't fly. In fact, in California, until the wildfire situation has been controlled, just don't fly. Period.

By the way, this also applies to drones people might consider toys. Even if it's a cheap toy you or your kid is playing with, if it can go up in the air, it can get in the way. Keep it on the ground.

This is a no-kidding, no-loophole situation. The fire conditions are dire. Stay the heck out of the way and let the very brave folks who are putting their lives on the line do their jobs.

Innovation implications

This is one of those areas where there are unexpected ripple effects from the introduction of a new technology to society.

Also: These drones are hitting the skies and surf in 2018 CNET

Drones are amazing. In the hands of just a few early adopters, they've been just another fringe technology. But because drones have jumped the adoption curve and millions of people now own these autonomous flying vehicles, their use is becoming problematic.

While drones provide great value for filmmakers, hobbyists, farmers, and other vertical industries, the foolish or intrusive use of these aircraft will be an ongoing challenge.

Just as the car changed the landscape of the country, adding wide strips of pavement crossing the entire continent, so too will the prevalence of drones and automated flying systems.

Stay tuned. Whether or not someday soon the skies get clogged with drones (and, eventually, flying cars), for now the problem is more specific and actionable: Keep your drones away from wildfires.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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Love them or hate them, drones are here to stay. Here are 17 drone mishaps that show why some people are still wary.

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