The fire started in Cajon Pass near Interstate Highway 15 east of Los Angeles on July 17. It flashed through drought-stricken vegetation, then engulfed cars stopped in heavy traffic on the highway. California fire officials ordered firefighting aircraft in to drop water and fire retardant on the highway and the burning cars and trucks.
But those aircraft initially had to stay grounded because the pilots saw several drones operating in the area; the people controlling those drones were apparently using their video cameras to observe the devastation from above. But the firefighters couldn’t risk a mid-air collision as long as those drones were occupying that airspace. Until the drones left, the pilots had to wait.
It’s hard to believe that something as small as a model aircraft, that can be ordered online by anyone, could pose a threat to fire-fighting aircraft—and, so, to the people and property in the way of that fire. But the danger, not only to emergency aircraft but also to commercial and private flights, is in fact very real and getting worse. The fact is, a drone can damage an airplane easily, and in some cases bring it down.
Real and present danger
While the California I-15 fire is the most recent case of drones interfering with emergency efforts, the flying gadgets have been plaguing aircraft for years as their popularity has skyrocketed.
The list of documented incidents covers some of the world’s busiest airports, including New York’s La Guardia, Los Angeles International, Heathrow, Dallas Love Field and Warsaw; the full list is much longer. In each of the instances at these airports, one or more drones appeared near passenger planes as they approached their destinations.
While the risk from a drone to an airliner depends on many factors, the reality is that a collision between the two types of aircraft is nearly certain to damage the bigger one. The extent of that damage depends on the size of the drone and where it strikes the airplane. In addition, the speed of the airplane and what the airplane is doing at the time contribute to the potential damage.
For example, if a drone weighing a couple of pounds were to strike a jet airliner in one of the engines, there will be some damage to the turbine blades inside of the engine. How much damage depends on whether the engine is running slowly (as it would be when the airplane is landing) or producing full power (as it would be durning takeoff). If the engine is producing full power, the damage could be extensive.
Likewise, a drone striking the windshield of an airplane could break it. Whether it does depends on the speed of the airplane, the speed of the drone and the weight of the drone. If the windshield breaks during a critical time in the operation of the aircraft, a crash could easily occur.
This kind of accident is especially threatening to airplanes being used to fight fires. Their engines are usually producing full power, and the pilots are focusing intently on their mission of dropping water or retardant in exactly the right place. Even a split-second’s distraction can be fatal, and even a small interference with the flight of the aircraft can mean the difference between life and death.
What can be done
Unfortunately, beyond educating drone owners, there’s not much anyone can do to prevent such hazardous activities. It’s already illegal for drone operators to interfere with commercial or emergency flights; it was illegal for anyone to be flying in the area of the I-10 fire unless they were involved in fighting the fire or news coverage. The Federal Aviation Administration had already closed the airspace in the vicinity of the fire for just such reasons.
An FAA spokesperson explained how this works via email. “Often, temporary flight restrictions (TFR) are in place around wildfires to protect firefighting aircraft,” the spokesperson wrote. “Nobody other than agencies involved in the firefighting process can fly a manned or unmanned aircraft in such a TFR without FAA approval. Any unmanned aircraft operator who violates a TFR and endangers the safety of manned aircraft could be assessed a civil penalty for careless or reckless operation of an aircraft.”
In case you were wondering, that civil penalty is a big fine—as much as $25,000 for each incident. The FAA spokesperson said that the agency provides information to law enforcement officials in the area.
This isn’t to suggest that the FAA is against drones. In fact the agency is currently working on making it legal to use drones commercially. Already the FAA has issued blanket permits for the use of drones in some types of commercial work, including the film industry, provided they follow certain guidelines, which include a requirement that drones operate far from airports, with licensed pilots at the controls.
In addition, the FAA has begun an outreach program to help drone owners understand what the rules are, and the agency has even created an app that will help drone operators determine where and when they can fly their drones.
Unfortunately, there’s little that the FAA or any other federal agency can do to prevent irresponsible use of drones. The only answers currently available are education and good sense on the part of the drone operators. Sadly, for some, that good sense seems to be what’s missing.
Wayne Rash is Senior Columnist for eWEEK and is a long-time writer about aviation and space. He has been a pilot since 1970. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org