This bill seeks to address the hazard posed by unmanned aircraft systems, or drones, operating in flight-restricted airspace during an emergency. The bill is supported by the California Fire Chiefs Association, the California Professional Firefighters, and the California State Association of Counties.
SB 168 has two significant components:
- It would provide first responders with immunity should a civilian drone be damaged or destroyed while interfering with any first responder emergency operations; and
- It would increase the fine for operating in restricted airspace, i.e. the airspace in and around the site of an emergency.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, on 13 separate occasions this year, drones have interfered with aircraft attempting to battle wildfires, compared with only four such incidents during 2014. In many instances, firefighting aircraft have had to be grounded for safety reasons due to drones operating in flight-restricted airspace. The end result of the grounding of these aircraft before they could complete their drops of water or fire-retardant material was never more dramatic than in July 2015, when at the Cajon Pass in San Bernardino County, a 3,500-acre wildfire destroyed both homes and at least 20 vehicles as the blaze jumped Interstate 15. In August, a civilian drone nearly collided with an ambulance in the skies over Fresno.
In a joint letter
announcing their sponsorship of SB 168, the League and the California Police Chiefs stated: “The distractions, delays, and heightened threat to public safety caused by the irresponsible use of civilian drones pose an unacceptable and growing risk for both our first responders and members of the public.”
Some have voiced doubts that what are essentially hobby drones pose much of a threat, and that authorities may have over-reacted in deciding to ground their aircraft for safety reasons. But in a recent CBS News broadcast, Jeff Thrasher, a helicopter pilot with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, underscored the danger drones pose to firefighting aircraft, when he made it clear that even a collision with a relatively small drone can bring an aircraft down. “If a drone … were to go into a tail rotor or a main rotor system, it could have catastrophic consequences,” he said.
Why State Law is Necessary
Another factor in the drone discussion is the pending body of safety rules proposed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in February 2015. Unfortunately the proposed rules address non-recreational operation of drones only — they do not include within their scope the recreational, or hobby drones that have so frequently interfered with first responder aircraft in past several weeks in California.
Nonetheless, the FAA reportedly takes the view that it has occupied the field in terms of any laws regulating the use of drones — all drones. But current federal regulations do not address the use of hobby drones at all. While it is a violation of both state and federal law to operate any civilian drone in temporarily flight-restricted airspace, such as the scene of a wildfire, current law does not provide a sufficiently strong deterrent to actually prevent this activity, nor do current regulations facilitate identifying the bad actors.
Current federal regulations impose operating limitations on drone operators in the form of proposed rules to minimize safety risks:
- Small UAS (drone) operators must always see and avoid manned aircraft. If there is a risk of collision, the drone operator must be the first to maneuver away.
- The operator must discontinue the flight when continuing would pose a hazard to other aircraft, people or property.
- A small drone operator must assess weather conditions, airspace restrictions and the location of people to lessen risks if he or she loses control of the drone.
- A small drone may not fly over people, except those directly involved with the flight.
- Flights should be limited to an altitude of 500 feet and no faster than 100 mph.
- Operators must stay out of airport flight paths and restricted airspace area, and obey any FAA Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs).
Unfortunately, drone operators are ignoring most of these rules with increasing frequency, under circumstances that clearly pose an imminent danger to public safety.
State law stiffening existing penalties for reckless operation of drones endangering public safety is needed to help close this regulatory gap. Drones operators must be placed on notice that fines for irresponsible operation will be significant, and that they may lose the drone itself, if recent activities interfering with first responders during emergencies continue.
Some California cities have taken the initiative to unilaterally ban the use of drones during specified emergencies such as wildfires. In mid-August, the Poway City Council directed its city attorney to craft a narrow urgency ordinance that would make it illegal to launch or land a drone within the city limits if there is a fire within two miles of the city. Mayor Steve Vaus brought the issue before the council, citing several incidents elsewhere in the state in which air tankers and helicopters were forced to leave the vicinity of active wildfires because drones operating in the area made it too dangerous to fly. The council this week voted 4-1 to pass an emergency ordinance banning drones over most of the city. Poway residents lost homes in the 2003 and 2007 wildfires.
Federal Regulations Too Loose, Give Recreational Drones a Pass
Another factor frustrating the ability of authorities to hold wayward drone operators accountable is that legislation imposing requirements such as unique identifiers on individual drones, “kill switches,” or even transponders, have consistently been resisted by manufacturers.
Despite discussions in Congress of stiffer fines and even jail time being imposed at the federal level, such talk may not mean much if there is no feasible means of readily identifying drones or linking them with specific operators. Past federal regulations have contributed to the current problem; Congress in 2012 blocked regulation of drones flown for recreational purposes, and ruled that the FAA could not require members of the public to register their drones, obtain training, or fly drones with identifying features. This has ushered in the current growing abuse of recreational drones that has risen to the level of endangering first responder aircraft as well as commercial jetliners.
(Jackson) is a related bill introduced in response to drone activity involving complaints against drone operators by their neighbors. Currently on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk, the measure would provide that an unmanned aerial vehicle flown less than 350 feet over private property without permission of the owner constitutes trespass, which could lead to a civil suit being filed against the violator operating the drone.