FBI aiding firefighter officials neutralize drones flying illegally near wildfires

drones wildfires firefighter

As efforts increase to battle what is turning out to be another merciless summer of wildfires in California, local firefighter officials are getting a hand from the FBI to detect, track, and ground drones being flown illegally around blazes, according to an exclusive report by CNN.

Appealing to private UAV pilots to stay clear of raging flames has become a virtually year-round activity as the combination of global warming and extended droughts both increase the threat and time frame of fires breaking out. Now, says CNN, local authorities are being assisted by the FBI to keep watch for drones operating illegally near wildfires, and then follow a digital path to pilots to bring them down.

The Federal Aviation Administration issues NOTAMs for virtually all areas where blazes are being battled, meaning anyone who does so anyway risks a fine ranging from $1,000 to $25,000 for the offense. The reasons for the drone ban are obvious, given the large capacity and frequent rotation of traditional aircraft often deployed to help firefighters from above. 

In addition to that, local firefighter units are increasingly turning to drones of their own, using high-resolution imagery and thermal sensors delivering critical real-time data to understand how infernos are evolving, and where their hottest pockets are located. Having to worry about consumer UAVs buzzing nearby to get souvenir footage for uploading on social media is an added aerial distraction in already chaotic situations.

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To avoid those – and respond to them when they arise – local fire officials are being backed up by FBI technicians using adapted anti-UAV platforms. The tech relies on sensors to create a virtual exclusion zone over an area where firefighters are working to contain wildfires, alerting a system monitor as soon as a drone enters it. Data relayed back includes vehicle elevation, flight direction, speed, location of the craft, and geographic position of its controller.

“When the detection equipment finds the drone and identifies the operator’s location, we can very rapidly get that information to a ground intercept team who can then go make contact with that drone operator and essentially get them to stop flying that drone,” James Peaco III, the FBI’s weapons of mass destruction coordinator in Los Angeles told CNN. “The first thing we do is order them to bring the drone back, explain to him that there’s a wildfire and flying that drone during a wildland fire is actually a federal felony.”

Peaco says most offenders plead ignorance of the drone ban near wildfires, or claim they thought they could snatch a quick video if they stayed out of firefighters’ way. The earnestly clueless have typically been sent packing with a warning, with only the worst of the intentional rule breakers – not to mention unapologetic offenders – receiving fines. But given the multiplying occurrence of fires, and consumer UAVs turning up near them, that indulgence will likely also go up in flames soon.

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