No FAA prosecution for operator suspected of flying drone illegally into Bighorn Fire-fighting airspace

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will not prosecute the pilot who is suspected of flying a drone illegally into Bighorn Fire-fighting airspace. A lack of evidence resulted in no FAA prosecution for the drone operator.

No FAA prosecution for operator suspected of flying drone illegally into Bighorn Fire-fighting airspace

A spokesperson for the FAA said that the agency will not prosecute the operator who is suspected of flying a drone illegally into Bighorn Fire-fighting airspace, due to lack of evidence. The decision shows how difficult it can be to prove who was controlling the drone during an illegal flight.

News outlet Tuscon.com reports that the lack of prosecution is highly frustrating as an official of the University of Arizona said that when a drone operator gets away with illegal behavior,it will embolden others to follow the same course.

“I get that it’s hard (to prove). Some effort should be put into technology to identify the individuals that are invading this airspace at critical times,” said Ben Wilder, director of UA’s Tumamoc Hill Desert Laboratory and an executive producer of a recent webinar series on the Bighorn Fire. “Because it’s proven that if the Forest Service can’t get at their assets at that moment, then the fire gets an upper hand on them. It’s all so time-sensitive.”

On at least two occasions in early June, the presence of at least two drones forced the firefighters to suspend aerial operations in a crucial stage in the Bighorn fire. Authorities said that the suspensions slowed the US Forest Service’s efforts to battle the wildfire as it was getting underway. The fire started on roughly 200 acres on June 5th but increased to around 2,500 acres by June 8 after the two drone incursions happened, according to officials of the Forest Service. The fire was finally contained on July 23, after having burned 120,000 acres in the Catalina Mountains.

“We conducted a thorough investigation into this incident. However, we were not able to conclusively determine that the suspected drone operator was the pilot” who violated FAA flight restrictions in the wildfire area, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said Thursday in an email to the Star. “That said, we did counsel the drone pilot, both orally and in writing, about the importance of not flying drones near wildfires and observing any (flight restrictions) that are in place,” he said.

The FAA did not disclose the drone operator’s identity or gender as it did not prosecute. The spokesperson declined to explain why exactly the FAA could not prove the identity of the drone operator responsible for the illegal drone flight. The drone in question was registered with the FAA as is required.

“Speaking generally, the more concrete evidence we have, the easier it is to put together an enforcement case. Concrete evidence can include photos, videos, eyewitness reports, an admission by a pilot, and data and other records,” the FAA spokesperson said.

Two drones were confiscated by the Forest Service and the cases were reported to the FAA and the FBI, according to KVOA-TV. The TV station also mentioned a third illegal drone flight around the same time.

Two spokeswomen of the US Forest Service had previously said that the drone-related cases were turned over to the FBI. FBI spokesperson, Brooke Brennan in Phoenix would not comment on the case, saying that, “As a matter of course, the FBI does not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.”

Steve Miranda, a Forest Service aviation staff officer said that illegal drone flights and intrusions were a real issue during the early days of the fire, shutting down the firefighting ‘airshow.’

“That airshow, if it goes away, it makes it more challenging for firefighters on the ground to be successful. They need that water. … In May, June and July it was the hottest May, June and July on record,” Miranda said in an Aug. 13 webinar sponsored by the UA’s Arizona Institute for Resilience and Arizona Public Media, among other entities.

Tuscon.com reported that Mike Overstreet a local TV producer who uses drone professionally said that illegal drone flight such as these, create ‘quite rightfully’ a negative perception about drones among the public and press

“Because of these idiots who go out and do things dangerously, fly over fires, fly at night and hinder law enforcement, it gives the whole genre of drone operations a very negative tone,” Overstreet said. “Whereas, in fact, drones are a very safe way to view things that cannot be viewed in normal circumstances.”

Overstreet said that drones can be dangerous because people can get hurt when unmanned aircraft fall out of the sky.

“More importantly, they are a hazard to low-flying aircraft, and over a fire is where you have, by design, low-flying aircraft,” he said. “You put a tanker that is flying at 500 feet, and then you have some overzealous drone operator who wants to be at 500 feet. Then the drone becomes dangerous to aircraft. The consequences are unimaginable. We really need to find ways to prosecute more of these people who cause problems. The problem is, of course, finding them.”

 

 

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Photo: Rick Wiley / Arizona Daily Star

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