CA: Bill on drones heads to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk



By Joe Nelson, San Bernardino Sun

Legislation that would increase fines for drone operators who interfere with firefighters and other emergency responders has passed the Legislature and is headed to the governor for consideration.

State Sen. Ted Gaines’ proposed law would also grant immunity to firefighters and other emergency responders who damage or destroy unmanned aerial aircraft during emergency operations.

Senate Bill 168 passed the Legislature on Friday and was on its way Monday to the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown for consideration, an aide for Gaines said.

“To think that someone would interfere with firefighting or emergency response situations to get a sneak peak or to post a drone video on YouTube is an outrage that is deserving of punishment and condemnation,” Gaines, a Republican from El Dorado, said in a statement.

For firefighters, 2015 has been the year of the drone. Unmanned aerial aircraft have been popping up at wildland fires across the state this year, hindering firefighting operations, destroying property and threatening lives, authorities said. And Southern California — with fires across the San Gabriel Valley foothills to the passes and brush of San Bernardino County — has been no exception.

“Any effort by our elected officials, the public and hobbyists to make the skies safer for firefighters, we definitely appreciate,” said John Miller, U.S. Forest spokesman for the San Bernardino National Forest.

He said that within a five-week period in June and July, there were five drone sightings at four wildland fires in San Bernardino County, and there have been more than a dozen drone sightings at wildfires across the state this year.

“It’s now part of our new reality that everybody has to be on the lookout for these things, which is a place we weren’t in a couple of years ago,” Miller said.

The most recent incident occurred Sunday, when Cal Fire reported that a drone forced the grounding of two air tankers trying to drop retardant on a wildfire fire in Oakhurst in Northern California.

In August, as the Cabin fire raged on the upper slopes of San Gabriel Canyon in the Angeles National Forest north of Glendora, the Federal Aviation Administration enforced a temporary ban on the flying of drones.

That came after a series of fires in San Bernardino County, where drones flown by civilians interfered with major firefighting efforts.

IN: Wayne Township fire department begins drone operations


INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A buzzing filled the air as the little white plastic drone lifted off, all four of its propellers whirring. Lt. Troy Wymer sent it zooming off across a grassy field, a tiny spectator looking down over the geese below.

In the future, Wymer is hoping to use the unmanned aircraft in less picturesque settings — supporting Wayne Township firefighters in all kinds of situations, from hazardous material spills to search-and-rescue operations.

Wymer is one of seven Wayne Township firefighters who were trained to fly the department’s two new drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, this week. Capt. Mike Pruitt, the department’s spokesman, said Wayne Township is the first fire department in Indiana to use drones.

“I think back to hundreds of runs that it would have been so nice to have eyes on the top of the situation,” Pruitt told the Indianapolis Star. “Beforehand we either had to use a helicopter or get up in an aerial truck.”

For example, if a large building is on fire, the incident commander sitting in a truck can only see one side of the building, Pruitt said. With a drone, he or she could also see the other three sides, providing a better understanding of the situation.

And fewer firefighters would be put in danger if using a drone to investigate the extent of the blaze.

However the drones, which are about a square foot in size, are not a replacement, he said, for helicopters or on-the-ground manpower. They will mostly be used to gather information at the initial incident scene and report back in real time.

“One of the things that’s most important for first responders is situational awareness,” Wymer said. “Instead of a manpower-intensive operation, we can use something like this.”

Another benefit is that the drones, although they do have a 24-minute battery life, can be airborne within five minutes. Compare that with the time it would take to get a helicopter or even put on a hazmat suit.

Pruitt said the Wayne Township Fire Department first started thinking about using drones in April of this year, when they met representatives of SkyFire Consulting at a conference in Georgia.

SkyFire provides full-service consulting to fire departments looking to integrate drones into their procedures, from the drones themselves to handling the certification paperwork through the Federal Aviation Administration.

Each drone costs about $2,000. Overall, the entire project cost the fire department about $10,000, Pruitt said, including three days of training for the firefighters.

“Basically, we serve as their eyes in the sky,” SkyFire Director of Sales Walt Wylupek said. “It’s a lot safer to send in a $2,000 piece of plastic, rather than a human life.”

Drones and firefighters have been in the news recently as wildfires rage on the West Coast, but many of the stories are about privately operated drones interfering with aerial firefighting operations.

“There’s a lot of controversy right now, but safety is our number one priority,” Pruitt said. “We’re not going to be working at super high altitudes.”

And the pilots will be fully trained, unlike some hobby pilots. The department must obtain a certificate of authority from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly the drones, have written guidelines of how the drones are to be used and ensure drone pilots have passed the private pilot written test in addition to field training in operating the unmanned aircraft. Eventually, the FAA will make a site visit to ensure the pilots are fully capable, Pruitt said.

Once the pilots are fully certified and the drones are integrated into daily operations, Pruitt said the fire department is planning to share the use of the technology with other law enforcement agencies. Eventually, they may purchase more drones.

Washington: Naches Heights fire official sees drone use as a tool to help firefighters


After a suspicious brush fire in Naches Heights earlier this summer, Steven Mack decided to get a better look at the fire scene.

Rather than walk the charred earth or seek out higher ground to gain an overview, the Naches Heights Fire Department lieutenant used his DJI Phantom Vision 2 quadcopter to fly over the fire site and shoot video from different angles.

The video, he said, showed how the fire burned and offered possible clues to guide investigators to its origin.

Mack hopes the quadcopter gets used more often in firefighting and rescue operations.

“I see this as a toolbox,” he said.

Other fire officials think the aircraft, commonly called drones, have potential. But they don’t expect to see widespread deployment anytime soon due to cost and lack of uniform procedures for using them.

Battery-powered drones became popular about two years ago, said Mike Hanratty, owner of Mike’s Model Aircraft Supply and Hobby Center in Yakima.

Hanratty, a former president of the Yakima Valley Aeromodelers club, said the craft range from small copters that can fit in a person’s palm for less than $40, to quadcopters that can carry high-definition cameras and fly more than a mile from their operators that cost more than $1,000. The drone that Mack owns cost about $1,200.

Hobbyists use the craft to shoot pictures and video of landscapes, architecture and events. Mack, who got his drone a year ago, has shot aerial video of the entire length of Cowiche Canyon, as well as footage of a local vineyard. Hobbyists are not the only ones using them, either. Some farmers use drones to monitor fields and ensure that crops are getting enough water.

But drones have their detractors as well. There have been incidents of people shooting at quadcopters, claiming they were being spied on.

The National Park Service bans drones in parks and national monuments, saying the crafts have disturbed people and harassed wildlife.

At one California wildfire, crews suspended aerial operations because drones were at risk of colliding with air tankers and helicopters trying to quench flames. The incident prompted California lawmakers to draft a bill that would allow firefighters and emergency personnel to bring down drones during fire emergencies without fear of prosecution.

But Mack believes that, in the right hands, a drone can be an asset to firefighters. For limited personal use, such as what Mack does, no license or permit is required from the Federal Aviation Administration.

At the moment, he uses his drone to take photos and video after brush fires, allowing firefighters to survey the scene and get a better understanding of what happened. But there are other applications as well, Mack said.

For example, a fire commander could use a drone to get a bird’s-eye view of an entire brush fire to see how the flames are moving and how best to deploy firefighters. Mack said his drone can provide live views.

A drone would also be useful in situations where it’s too dangerous to send a firefighter, such as a train derailment involving hazardous materials.

“I can fly in and identify the (hazardous materials) placards on the train cars,” Mack said, allowing responders to know exactly what they are dealing with.

Drones could also aid search-and-rescue teams, allowing them to search rugged areas faster, Mack said. With GPS technology, the drone could pinpoint a lost or injured person’s precise location.

Mack said he’s been asked to do demonstrations, and has had officials with other agencies, such as the Yakima Fire Department, discuss the potential for drones.

Yakima fire Deputy Chief Ted Vander Houwen said he’s talked to Mack, and sees the benefits of the technology.

Researchers envisage swarms of tiny drones for dangerous rescue missions



Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University are working on a new generation of disaster drones that can be deployed in swarms into buildings to give first responders a look inside, mapping out the interior as they go.

The drones could be valuable in situations such as those faced recently after massive explosions ripped through a port in Tianjin, China, or in the aftermath of something smaller like a house fire.

“These places are very dangerous for rescuers to go, so we don’t want to just blindly send people inside,” said Pei Zhang, an associate research professor at CMU’s campus inside the NASA Ames Research Park in Moffett Field, California, where the research is taking place.

“Instead, we want to get these things in before people go in and determine if there are people that need help,” he said, gesturing to several drones on the table in front of him.

Zhang envisages using a larger drone, which he likens to a mothership, to carry multiple smaller drones into whatever environment is being explored. The smaller drones would deploy from the large drone and begin their work.

The larger drone, he reasons, has a longer range and can better handle wind and other effects of the environment. But it may be too large to send inside somewhere like a building that’s been compromised by an earthquake.

So the smaller drones, some of which can easily fit in the palm of a hand, would fly inside to do their work.