Drones and Public Safety: Fires are Just the Beginning

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Drones and Public Safety: Fires are Just the Beginning

The Problem

Using technology in inappropriate situations isn’t a new concept. Not too long ago an Alabama police officer was beaten by a suspect as onlookers took pictures with their cell phones. There will always be a select few who ruin things for the rest of us and this extends to drones as well.

As drones become more popular we are starting to see the impact on society of their misuse. Recently as many as five drones were responsible for delaying efforts to contain a wildfire in San Bernardino County in California. This isn’t an isolated incident. In California alone this scene has played out several times before. And the problem is not just local. In Oliver, British Columbia, eight helicopters and an air tanker team were delayed over three hours when a drone invaded their airspace.

As I have warned many times before, this is just the start. As more people fly drones the odds of improper use goes up. It’s simply a statistical fact. How long before the first drone delays a helicopter from reaching someone who desperately needs that extra time to get help? Imagine a car crash on a crowded freeway. Traffic is stopped and help is on the way. Then someone flies their drone in to get pictures of the scene. Even if it’s only a matter of a few minutes, it could mean the difference between life and death.

The Solution

First, I want to clear that Drone Labs absolutely advocates drone use and we were the only drone detection company to go on record with the FAA saying as much. With that said, I believe the solution to drone misuse is simple: harsh punishments for intentional violations. This is the only way to stem the tide of these unwanted behaviors.

California law makers, Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Glendale) and Senator Ted Gaines (R-El Dorado), introduced State Senate Bill 167 which reads principally as follows:

Existing law prohibits specified behavior at forest fire sites, including disobeying the lawful orders of a public officer or firefighter or interfering with the lawful efforts of a firefighter to extinguish the fire, and makes this proscribed activity a misdemeanor, punishable by imprisonment in a county jail for not more than 6 months, or by a fine not exceeding $1,000, or by both that fine and imprisonment.

This bill would make it a misdemeanor to violate any of these provisions through the use or operation of an unmanned aircraft or unmanned aircraft system, punishable by a fine of not less than $200 or not more than $2,000, or to knowingly, intentionally, or recklessly violate any of these provisions through the use or operation of an unmanned aircraft or unmanned aircraft system, punishable by imprisonment in a county jail for not more than 6 months, or by a fine of $5,000, or by both that fine and imprisonment.

This punishment doesn’t go far enough in my opinion. Certainly if someone unknowingly operates a drone that impedes help that is one thing. For example, if someone is flying their drone at a park and the drone is in the way of a helicopter on its way to an accident that is clearly not intentional. If, however, there is a forest fire and there are five drones flying into it then that definitely shows intent. Intentional violations need a punishment that sets an example.

As in most cases the punishment should fit the crime. If the infraction causes minor trouble then a fine of a few hundred dollars makes sense; if the interference is more, then the scale should go up accordingly but with a much higher ceiling. A fine of up to $250,000 and jail time for up to 5 years would be more in line with what is needed here. That’s the max penalty for illegally copying movies so interfering with public safety officers should be just as important.

Until we have severe penalties and the public sees people receiving punishment these incidents will continue to escalate. Let the punishment fit the crime but make sure there is a deterrent level of punishment for the crime.

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