Along with everything else going on, 2020 has been a big year for wildfires. This was especially true in the Pacific Northwest, where Skyward’s Aviation Development Centers are located. Between property destruction, forestry damage, hazardous air quality, and loss of life, wildfires can be devastating.
As drone enthusiasts, we sometimes try to find a drone solution to every problem. It’s true that in a wildfire, drones can provide an aerial perspective, and drone-mounted thermal sensors can reveal hotspots and flare-ups. That’s exactly why some fire departments are running drone programs today.
But drone safety is paramount. For the public, flying a drone near a wildfire — even when trying to be helpful — can be disastrous. Doing so can interfere with firefighting aircraft and result in huge penalties for the pilot. The FAA is very clear: don’t fly drones near a wildfire.
With that said, it is possible for companies and agencies to use drones to support emergency responders and critical infrastructure. Recently, Skyward and Verizon responded to the Big Hollow Fire by remotely deploying a drone connected over 4G LTE to monitor communications infrastructure, keep people connected, and monitor the progress of the fire without sending personnel into a potentially dangerous situation. Such an operation requires a strong safety case, a clear purpose, and explicit permission from the FAA.
Here’s what you need to know about drones and wildfires as a recreational pilot, first responder, or commercial operator.
Recreational pilots: Don’t fly drones near wildfires
The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) has created a campaign to raise awareness about the dangers of flying recreational drones near a wildfire. The message is simple: “If You Fly, We Can’t.” Flying a drone near a wildfire poses danger to emergency aircraft and may force them to land. This can result in a delay in critical fire status information, slow fire containment strategies, and increase the threat to people, property, and our brave firefighters and first responders.
On top of that, interfering with firefighting operations carries heavy penalties. It can result in fines of up to $20,000 or up to 12 months in prison. No matter how dramatic the footage would be, it isn’t worth it.
As of September 2020, there were at least 20 documented drone incursions on firefighting efforts this year. That number could increase as even more drones become available. Don’t let it happen to you. Don’t fly recreational drones near wildfires.
First responders: Create a strong drone program and fly with caution
As I said above, drones can be a great tool for first responders. They can provide insights on rapidly changing situations and help fire crews avoid deadly risks. Fire departments responding to this year’s Oregon wildfires deployed drones to support firefighters. And a local news outlet featured one department’s drone program last year.
But first responders need to pay close attention to the rules. A formal drone program with top-notch policies and procedures is essential. Even first responders aren’t allowed to operate without permission from the FAA.
Today, most commercial drone pilots operate under the FAA’s Part 107 rules. However, most government entities apply for a certificate of authorization, or COA. This allows them to operate drones in some ways not permitted under Part 107 — but COAs have their own specific restrictions.
During emergencies, public entities and essential services can apply for expedited waivers through the FAA’s Special Government Interest (SGI) process. It is designed to provide rapid approval for special operations so crews can respond to disasters like wildfires.
Even under a COA, first responders must show extreme caution and operate strictly by the book. Otherwise, they could pose risks to their own aircraft or crews. Without the proper COAs and waivers, even first responders cannot fly near a wildfire.
Businesses: Don’t fly drones near emergencies — unless you have waivers and permission
The warnings from the FAA and NIFC apply to businesses, too. Like the general public, commercial operators who fly near wildfires risk interfering with firefighting aircraft — and the same strict consequences apply. Commercial drone pilots should always check for temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) before flying, and avoid operations near first responders.
But some enterprises may need to fly drones in response to an emergency. Electric utilities may need to monitor power lines and substations. Other critical services may need to assess damage and prepare for restoration efforts. It is possible to get permission for these missions, but only with explicit approval from the FAA, which requires a rock-solid safety case.
Companies flying amidst emergency situations usually need to apply for waivers that exempt them from certain provisions of Part 107. For example, if you need to fly while heavy smoke is in the air, you may need to apply for a waiver for the minimum visibility requirements. And if it is unsafe for personnel to be onsite, you will need a waiver for operations beyond visual line of sight.
Fortunately, businesses responding to emergency situations can also apply for waivers through the SGI process. This drastically reduces the time needed to apply for a waiver.
How Skyward and Verizon supported critical infrastructure during a wildfire
In September 2020, the Big Hollow wildfire burned more than 24,000 acres in Washington, causing mandatory evacuation orders in the area. A Verizon site hosting essential communications infrastructure was just blocks from a Level 1 evacuation order, and the air quality was unsafe for humans.
Verizon wanted to ensure its infrastructure wasn’t impacted by the disaster, but had no personnel onsite due to the dangerous conditions. Using the expedited SGI process, Verizon and Skyward applied for and received a temporary waiver from the FAA, allowing us to operate a drone beyond visual line of sight with no personnel onsite.
The drone was connected to Verizon’s 4G LTE network, allowing Skyward’s Aviation Development Center team to control the flight from our homes. As the team’s operations lead, I received a near real-time picture of the operation from 1,600 miles away while in Alaska.
This was a milestone for remote deployment of drones in the U.S., and it allowed Verizon to maintain the quality and performance of our network as it provides critical communication services to consumers and first responders.
The Big Hollow wildfire was an emergency, but our response to it was not. It was the result of a full year of rigorous systems planning and tests. When the crisis came, we were ready.