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Drone Incursions Over Wildfires on Decline, Sign that Education Is Working

BY Zacc Dukowitz
21 October 2020

The FAA has been working with partners—most notably the U.S. Department of the Interior, the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), and the U.S. Forest Service—to educate drone pilots about the dangers of flying near ongoing wildfire operations for years now.

It has helped create the When You Fly, We Can’t campaign, designed to let drone pilots know that their operations over wildfires could actively endanger manned pilots working in that area, as well as those in the fire’s path (since firefighting efforts may have to stop while the rogue drone flies through).

wildfire-drone-incursions

It’s also launched an information-sharing system to help drone pilots be better informed about NOTAMs and TFRs related to active wildfire operations, as well as fires that are so new they may not have made it onto official channels yet.

And it looks like all of these efforts are paying off.

A recent infographic released by the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) highlighting the total number of drone incursions that have taken place during active wildfires shows that the number reported so far for 2020 is one incursion less than the number reported for 2019.

Take a look:

But It’s Only October . . .

Of course, the first thing to point out about the data in the infographic is that 2020 isn’t over yet, and the number 20 only reflects the incursions that have taken place from January through September of this year.

But looking at the numbers on the infographic and thinking—Sure, 20 is less than 21, but we still have three months to go, so I guess we’ll wait and see whether incursions have actually gone down—well, that may not be the best way to think about these numbers.

Here are three different considerations to take into account when thinking about whether drone incursions are actually going down year over year.

1. The Wildfire Season Is Almost Over for 2020

The wildfire season doesn’t have official start/stop dates, but it’s generally considered to run from August up to November.

So, given that much of the worst of this season is over, we can expect that there simply won’t be as many wildfires left that could suffer a drone incursion.

Of course, this view makes the assumption that incursions are spread out in a predictable kind of way based on the total number of wildfires, but it is one helpful lens for thinking about whether incursions have actually gone down according to the recent incursion data shared by the NIFC.

2. This Year Was Brutal for Wildfires

Another important datapoint when thinking about whether drone incursions are going down is the fact that we are seeing more and more wildfires, which means more and more potential incursion opportunities.

As many have noticed, over the last ten years wildfires have generally been occurring more often and lasting longer than in years past.

tfr-drones-wildfire

To make this concrete, as of October 19 the NIFC reports that 2020 has had “2.1 million more acres burned than the 10-year average” in the U.S. with “46,148 wildfires that have burned over 8.4 million acres this year.”

Compare this to 2019, in which 4.7 million acres burned throughout the U.S.—almost half the number from 2020.

Despite the significant increase in total acres burned, we have not seen a corresponding increase in drone incursions, which is certainly a good thing.

3. Drone Ownership Is Growing Every Year

Finally, it’s important to consider that the total number of drones in the U.S. is going up every year.

Although this year’s annual Aerospace Forecast from the FAA showed that the overall growth of drone ownership hadn’t been as aggressive for 2019 as forecasted, it was still significant, with a growth of 6% on the consumer side and 39% on the commercial side.

One significant number from 2019 is that it was the year we passed the 1 million drone pilot milestone. At the close of 2019 the FAA had registered a total of 1.1 million drone pilots owning a total of 1.7 million drones (these totals are for all time).

And 2020 is sure to see a further uptick in both registered drone pilots and drones owned. But even though each year brings more drone pilots and more drones in the air, the number of drone incursions has not had a corresponding increase—in fact, it appears to be staying steady or even possibly declining.

[Related reading: 7 Ways Fire Departments Use Drones in the Field]

Granted, FAA registration numbers may not be completely helpful when it comes to understanding the likelihood of drone incursions.

After all, if you’re the kind of drone pilot who would fly over an active wildfire operation, it’s not unlikely that you haven’t registered your drone or read the educational materials the FAA provides for hobbyists and commercial drone pilots.

But these numbers can help us make the general observation that drone ownership has continued to increase every year since 2015, when the first reported drone incursions appear on the NIFC’s infographic.

Even if that ownership has slowed over the years, the fact that there continue to be more drones in the air every year while the number of incursions continues to go down shows us that, when considering the ratio of total drones owned to total wildfire incursions, the total percentage has been reduced well beyond what the NIFC’s infographic reflects.

Happy to hear about the decline in drone incursions over wildfires? Join the conversation in this thread on the UAV Coach community forum.

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