In a bid to ramp up the battle against wildfires, drones are soaring onto the scene, thanks to federal lawmakers' initiatives. Yet, the bureaucratic entanglements around regulations and procurement pose significant challenges, prompting Congress to bolster unmanned aircraft's use for tracking and battling forest blazes.
New directives embedded in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bills from both the House and Senate look to propel the agency to devise strategies for broader drone usage. These provisions also aim to make federal lands accessible for testing, a move welcomed by drone supporters who believe it could provide invaluable insights for Firefighters without endangering lives on the front lines.
“Having received firsthand accounts from wildland firefighters and local governments about the necessity for improved aerial coordination in Wildfire detection, prevention, and suppression, it's clear that the emergent technology of drones holds promise in firefighting,” said Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev, who advocated for drone provisions in the House bill. “That's why I pushed for language in this year's FAA legislation to make it easier for them to operate safely and more effectively.”
The House FAA bill borrows from bills introduced by Titus and Transportation and Infrastructure Aviation Subcommittee Chair Garret Graves, R-La. Their proposals encourage the FAA to greenlight commercial drones' “beyond visual line of sight operations,” or BVLOS, a concept that both the House and Senate bills seek to develop.
A host of obstacles that Drone Industry experts have been urging the government to address are encapsulated in the provisions. This includes current rules requiring drone operators to maintain visual contact with their devices, limitations on drone flights over federal lands, and a scarcity of test ranges for technology development.
States and local firefighting units have already begun to leverage drones to capture thermal images and even conduct controlled burns in remote areas. However, federal laws and Congress need to address several issues before drones can be effectively scaled up for fighting wildfires. As Matt Sloane, CEO and founder of SkyFire Consulting, noted, existing line-of-sight rules significantly restrict the capabilities of unmanned aircraft in the fight against wildfires.
“Sometimes, safety rules can do more harm than good,” Sloane added. “Flying a drone two miles away in downtown LA might be problematic, but out in the desert, where only wildfire response teams are present, we know where everyone is.”
While Sloane concurs with the notion that the United States ought to diversify away from Chinese drones, he conveys a stark reality: drones that have been given the green light for usage cost double and offer less functionality than their Chinese counterparts.
“Having experienced it from the inside, I can assert that the Chinese government is funding these companies to manufacture larger drones. They have an army of 10,000 engineers devoted to this cause,” he stated.
He further highlighted the plight of domestic companies, which are grappling to stay afloat in the absence of an established infrastructure, even as there's a consensus on the need for American-made drones.
According to a Democratic committee staffer, the House bill aims to empower the FAA to target high-potential wildfire areas with drones operating beyond the visual line of sight. The FAA itself acknowledged in a March 2022 report that its current regulations “do not enable the domestic [drone] beyond visual line-of-sight industry to scale and achieve meaningful results.”
John Dabiri, an aeronautical engineer and member of the Biden administration's President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, reportedly sees the Senate bill's provision for test ranges as a boon, allowing for trials in weather conditions specific to different regions.
“Until we have some of these test ranges up and running, there's going to be this persistent question of whether these technologies that sound nice on paper…can they really save lives on the front line?” he queried.
But as the U.S. endeavors to shift its drone manufacturing industry from China to home soil, some question whether the federal government can keep pace with regulating and procuring the evolving technology.
Despite the hurdles, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved its FAA bill in June, with a full House review expected in July. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee is yet to review its FAA bill. As for now, the future of drones in firefighting looks set to fly even higher.
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