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If You Fly, We Can’t: New Information Sharing Initiative Aims to Stop Drone Incursions over Wildland Fires

BY Zacc Dukowitz
30 June 2017

Many of us drones for good fans know that UAVs can help fire fighters by providing information for a fire that’s hard to see due to smoke or other factors, or by using aerial thermography to understand where a fire might still be smoldering.

But it turns out drones have actually been hindering many large wildland fire fighting operations.

fire-fighting-aviation

Image source

In response, the U.S. Department of the Interior recently launched a data sharing program called “Current Wildland Fires” with the goal of keeping private UAV operators from flying over ongoing wildland fire operations.

Drones encroaching into ongoing firefighting operations is a growing concern. From 2014 to 2015 the number of unauthorized UAVs flying over or near wildfires grew from two to 25, and then jumped up to 42 in 2016.

Several times, when drones were present near wildfires that were being actively fought by various agencies, fire suppression aviators (like the one pictured above) had to take evasive action to avoid crashing into a UAV.

Twelve of these drone encounters forced fire fighters to stop aerial support altogether until the drone vacated the area, putting other firefighters’ lives on the line and placing the surrounding communities in danger for a longer period of time.

About the Current Wildland Fires Program

In some respects, this problem isn’t surprising.

As the number of drones in the U.S. grows, we can expect to see more drones in the sky. Unfortunately, this also means more drones potentially posing a nuisance, or even a real threat, to other aviators (not to mention the people on the ground those aviators may be trying to help).

One of the great things about the Interior’s Current Wildland Fires Program is that, by providing information on where fires are happening in real time, it hands drone operators a tool to help them fly more responsibly.

“By providing greater public access to a wider array of wildland fire location data, drone operators will Know Where Not To Go in near real-time.”

– Mark Bathrick, Director of Aviation Services, U.S. Department of the Interior

According to the Interior more than 73,000 wildfires are reported across the United States each year.

About 98% of them are contained within the first 24 hours, before incident managers ask the FAA to issue a Temporary Flight Restriction. This means that most fires were never plotted on dynamic aeronautical maps, and therefore were never made known to drone operators before the Interior launched its 2016 initiative to share fire location data with commercial mapping services that support drone operations.

When it comes to sharing data to increase safety, that is a monumental achievement.

The 2017 program expands on the 2016 program, providing location data on any wildland fire reported in the last eight days, which makes it more robust than the previous year, when reports only included information from the previous 72 hours.

It’s not surprising that the program aims to educate UAV operators, since it was spearheaded by Mark Bathrick (quoted above), who oversees a fleet of over 200 drones as the Director of Aviation Services for the U.S. Department of the Interior. Check out the Interior’s Office of Aviation Services to learn more about all of the ways they’re using UAVs, from fighting fires to helping with geological and other surveys, and more.

(By the way, if Mark’s name is familiar, it’s because he gave an impressive keynote at the Commercial UAV Expo last year called “What It Takes to Succeed in Drones: The Four Key Competencies.”)

How Can You Help?

Easy! Make sure you’re aware of fires in your area before you fly, and don’t fly near them.

To use the Current Wildlife Fires program, drone operators can create an account on the GeoPlatform ArcGIS Online Organization at https://idp.geoplatform.gov/registeruser.html.

After your account is created go to https://geoplatform.maps.arcgis.com/home/index.html and sign in using the GeoPlatform.gov account, then search for the group “Current Wildland Fires” and request to “Join this group” to gain access to wildland fire location data.

We created an account to play around with the map, and found it really easy to use. Here are some screenshots we took:

wildland-fires-map

wildland-fires

Given that we’re in the height of summer, there are a lot of wildfires burning right now.

Check out this article that USA Today published yesterday covering 27 wildfires burning across the west right now, and then use the Current Wildland Fires map to avoid flying in those locations (and others!) where fires are happening.

According to the article there are 8,400 fire fighters working around the clock right now to keep all of these fires from spreading. Let’s do what we can to help them out.

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