Photo credit: Allef Vinicius

Game of Drones: Winter is coming

It’s January, and it’s scorching hot in Central Otago, New Zealand. Everywhere you look, plants are unusually brown and tinder dry. Great weather for holiday makers and tourists, not so great for wildfires.

As a fire rages on the shores of Lake Wanaka, airborne firefighters are primed to respond, but sit grounded and frustrated. The cause? A hobbyist drone operator (this time a tourist) flying their drone over the fires to obtain great footage for social media.

An escalating problem

This is unfortunately not an isolated incident. Drone numbers are rapidly escalating and are forecast to continue to do so over the next few years. The FAA recently released a report showing that drone sales in the USA alone are anticipated to grow from an annual level of 2.5 million in 2016 to a forecast 7 million in 2020. 23 cases in the USA reached Federal prosecution status in 2016. A significantly larger number of violations have occurred in addition to this.

The media is full of examples of drones being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In some circumstances enforcement action has been taken with fines imposed.

Legislation does not equal compliance

With the emerging reality of winter wildfires and other adverse global weather conditions, based on how the system currently works it is unfortunately only a matter of time before someone gets either injured badly hurt or killed. This will create significant hurt for loved ones and significant liability for operators of drones or their companies. The insurance industry, likewise, is struggling to deal with the concept of insurable risk around drones.

It is heartening to see the developments in the aviation space (largely driven by aviation authorities). Including, line of sight operation, dedicated air zones, device registration, drone pilot training and pre-flight registration. Compliance is however, only as effective as the technologies and processes that ensure this.

This might be reasonably effective when conditions are constant, but, variables massively change in the real world that first responders and emergency management services organizations find themselves in. It is as Mike Tyson once famously said — everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. Using fires as an example, what might be an appropriate flight path pre-fire, becomes life threatening for first responders when the airspace is mixed.

A problem of low level deconfliction

Much has been written about the relative merits of certain technologies to mitigate against drones entering restricted space such as geo-fencing, attack drones or technologies that knock drones out of the sky, but this only goes so far.

Our view is that the problem really is one of low-level deconfliction. Any potential solution needs to have sufficient capability built in such that restricted zones might be changeable based on emerging events. By necessity this needs to include interoperability and directional enforcement with other airborne assets such that collisions between aircraft and drones are not only notifiable, but avoidable.

You can’t put the toothpaste back into the tube

Solutions need to be commercialized that enable those in harm’s way to operate free of encumbrances and with the peace of mind that allows them to focus on their hazardous tasks. These heroes are worthy of our respect and care.

A coordinated approach is required that is owned by a collaboration of the aviation authorities and the first responder and EMS providers. Until this becomes a reality the question remains, who will help the helpers?