If you fly, they can't - Using drones for good

Hobbyist drone operators and opportunist journos are causing havoc in airborne firefighting missions quarters — placing a risk to the safety of manned aircraft, and even bringing their time-sensitive missions to a standstill. Sadly, what is an extremely forward-thinking technological advancement is being deemed the bad boy of aerospace. What needs to change?

As we move out of wildfire season in Australia and approach it in the Northern Hemisphere, the periods seem to bleed together. Fire departments are now faced with year-round battles and need to look at ways they can do their jobs more safely and effectively. Technologies, like drones, are a vital tool to help improve mission outcomes and to keep more people safe.

Drones have an exceptional ability to support wildfire relief efforts, however, despite their potential for good, they’re often seen as the guerilla of the industry.

The media is full of examples of drones being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In 2016 alone, 23 cases in the USA reached Federal prosecution status and a significantly larger number of violations have occurred in addition to this. 

When drones are flown in close proximity to aircraft, there’s a risk they could crash into the front windshield or hit a rotor blade, causing a catastrophe for an aircraft and for people on the ground.

Fire departments are issuing pleas to stop flying recreational drones anywhere near the blazes, and it’s these hobbyist drone operators who’re dampening the reputation of technology that has a huge potential to be used for good.

As Tony Mecham, chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s San Diego unit put it, “If you fly, we cannot.”

Sadly, these are not isolated events!

The race for regulation

Australia was the first nation in the world to have a comprehensive set of drone safety regulations. These were based on model aircraft rules that were put in place in 2002.

However, Peter Gibson, Corporate Communications Manager at Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) outlines that there is a necessity for reviewing the drone rules due to the speed in which it’s changed in the past few years.

“Issues being considered are drone registration, mandatory training for all drone flyers and geofencing technology.”

So far this year there have been close to 30 cases of drones being used unsafely, including flying over populous areas, in restricted zones, flying at night, and beyond the visual line of sight. The inappropriate use of drones is what is causing havoc.

We cannot deny that technology is advancing at a great rate of knots but it is important that emergency services and first responders are able to trust that these advancements are there to help, rather than hinder their work.

Drones in their best light

Drones are no longer just understood as a military tool, they’re now responding to natural disasters, aiding conservation, and delivering life-saving supplies.

They deliver important commercial and community outcomes.

“Drones can do risky tasks without putting pilots at risk, such as low flying and flying in poor conditions,” says Peter Gibson.

In firefighting missions, drones outfitted with an infrared camera can show images of dead or live vegetation to pinpoint which areas could quickly catch fire and need to be cleared. The infrared cameras can peer through thick smoke and walls to identify hot spots that firefighters should either keep away from or deal with immediately. They can monitor the situation from a high vantage point, thus giving firefighters an upper hand in dealing with the situation. 

Essentially, drones have given firefighters an extra set of ultra-powerful eyes that not only help fight these blazes but keep their members safe.

Innovate and regulate

The rate of drone innovation is hugely exciting, and their ability to support relief efforts is going to transform the work of first responders globally.

Issues arise when drones jeopardize safety, and these issues tend to result from a disregard for the regulations that surround drone use. That means we need to get the balance right between protecting the safety of the public while allowing drones to operate as widely as possible.

Peter Gibson believes the key to ensuring that the drone industry can continue to innovate while ensuring safer skies, is for drone operators to fly according to the safety rules.

“If people don’t operate safely and responsibly it is inevitable that society will demand tighter drone regulations and restrictions. Be creative with your drone but don’t put people, property and aircraft at risk.”

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