Here’s why experts say drone education isn’t working
Firefighters and lawmakers have been droning on about the need for drone pilots to steer clear when aircraft splash bubble-gum-colored fire retardant or clear water on wildfires. But the message doesn’t seem to be getting through.
Stray drones continue to pop up repeatedly around the state when firefighting aircraft are making drops, forcing them to abort missions.
And it happened again last week close to home.
A firefighting helicopter was prevented from dousing a small brush fire burning along the 134 Freeway in the Eagle Rock area of Los Angeles. Photos on social media showed a small white drone flying just beneath a helicopter.
Ultimately, water drops proved unnecessary. Los Angeles firefighters made quick work of the blaze, containing the flames within an hour. But the chilling incursion underscored swelling concern about a problem that just won’t go away.
“Somebody told me about that incident a couple days ago and I thought, ‘No. I can’t believe it,’ ” said Desiree Ekstein of Lake Elsinore, who goes by the nickname “Drone Diva” and possesses no fewer than 17 remote-controlled flying devices.
“How could people still be out there doing that?” Ekstein said. “It’s very frustrating.”
‘COOLNESS OF FIRE VIDEO’
Harrison Wolf, an aviation safety instructor at USC and drone consultant, said he’s not surprised. But he’s as frustrated as anyone by the stubborn trend.
“The education campaign (to discourage flying drones around fires) has been less than successful,” Wolf said.
Since last summer’s nerve-rattling close call between a drone and planes attacking the nearly 50-square-mile Lake fire in the San Bernardino National Forest, firefighting agencies have persistently spread the message, “If You Fly, We Can’t!”
“The coolness of capturing fire on video is making people stupid, it seems like, and putting firefighters at risk,” Wolf said.
Also frosted by the trend is Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, who tried unsuccessfully last year to pass a law to rein in rogue pilots and is pursuing a solution from a different angle.
FORCING DRONES TO LAND
“This is a discussion we shouldn’t be having,” Gatto said in a phone interview Friday. “This is a solvable problem.”
Earlier this year, Gatto unveiled his Drone Registration/Omnibus Negligence-prevention Enactment, or DRONE Act of 2016. Numbered Assembly Bill 2724, it passed the Assembly 54-17 in June and awaits action in the Senate. State lawmakers reconvene this week, following a summer recess.
Among other things, Gatto’s bill would require drones of a certain size and equipped with GPS capability to be fitted with automatic shut-off technology that directs unmanned flying devices to land when approaching airports or fire zones. The bill would also require owners to carry insurance beginning in 2020, to compensate victims when they are hurt or their property is damaged by drones.
Gatto said about 80 percent of larger hobby drones, those big enough to cause havoc with aircraft, already deploy GPS. He said his legislation would mandate the technology be tapped to prevent drones from straying near firefighting planes or passenger jets, as one did in March on a Lufthansa Airbus A380’s approach to LAX.
Drone manufacturer DJI, whose Phantom drones are extremely popular, began making available a software system that does just that, Wolf noted.
“They can create a geofence environment that will say there is a fire in this area and will not allow drones to fly in this area, much like they do around the White House,” Wolf said.
Whether such geofencing will become mandatory hinges on whether Gatto can persuade the Senate to greenlight his legislation and, perhaps more importantly, Gov. Jerry Brown to sign it.
Last year, Brown vetoed legislation by Gatto that would have created penalties for rogue operators who interfere. Gatto said this year’s focus of prevention through technology stands a better chance of getting signed.
While it’s frustrating for officials, the continual popping up of drones where they’re not welcome also is annoying for operators, said Dirk Dallas, professor of graphic design and digital media at California Baptist University in Riverside.
“It’s really disappointing when this news breaks because it’s a massive issue,” Dallas said. “But at the same time, it puts a bad name on all of us.”
The vast majority of operators fly responsibly, he said, and incursions are the work of a few “bad actors.”