Last week, we wrote about the potential benefit UAS operations can have for disaster response. Today, we write about a recent incident that shows the darker side of the intersection between disaster and UAS. For the past several days, a wildfire has been burning uncontrolled in California wine country. According to reports, a UAS nearly interfered with firefighter’s efforts to attack the flames by air. The local sheriff’s office tracked down the operator and determined that he was simply a hobbyist who was using his quad-copter to get video footage of the fire “for his own personal entertainment.” A CalFire spokesman stated that this was the first time such an incident had occurred, but expressed concerns that it would not be the last.
This incident highlights one of the FAA’s greatest concerns about UAS operation by hobbyists, the person who knows just enough to be dangerous. A good analogy for this situation is the proliferation of bike-share kiosks in cities like Washington D.C. Just because most tourists know how to ride a bike does not mean that they know how to ride a bike in downtown traffic. There is a certain level of bike handling skill and situational awareness that is needed over and above the basic skills needed for navigating through parks or suburban side streets.
The same is true for UAS flight. While general guidelines like “stay below 400 feet” are suitable for most people in most circumstances, there are areas where a greater amount of situational awareness and more sophisticated knowledge of operations in the airspace is necessary. We are sure the UAS operator in question had no idea there was a chance that he would be sharing low altitude airspace with aircraft trying to fight the fire. Similarly, we are sure there are operators in rural areas who are unaware that low-level crop dusting operations might be occurring. It is important for operators to know not just the general rules, but how those rules actually work, as well as where there are exceptions to the rules.
The FAA has been doing a good job recently in presenting easy to understand guidance to hobbyists. This education task, however, is likely a never-ending one, as new people are constantly entering the hobby and need to be educated.
(Originally posted July 30, 2014)