Wildfire footage captured from drones can be breathtaking, but getting that footage can often hinder firefighters in their rescue efforts. Currently emergency responders can only ask the public to keep their drones away and there are no local penalties. But a new law may change that.
Legislation is set to be introduced at the Capitol in the coming days that would make it a crime to obstruct emergency operations with a drone. The draft legislation, a copy of which was obtained by Colorado Politics, would make flying a drone near active police and firefighters a class two misdemeanor.
The fine would range from $250 to $1,000, but for Chris Swathwood, vice chairman for Colorado Aviation Business Association who helped draft the legislation, it’s not about generating revenue from fines. It’s about safety.
“It’s really important to help educate the general drone population of the importance of staying clear of these operations,” Swathwood said by phone. “It’s a huge education bill, but it also creates penalties for those people who don’t take the education seriously.”
The use of drones by emergency responders is becoming commonplace in Colorado. The small unmanned aircraft systems have provided rescuers in counties across the state with a new tool to aid in more accurate firefighting, faster search and rescue, and safer SWAT missions.
But the rules designed to ensure safe and lawful drone flight still lag at the state and federal levels. Last year, the Legislature passed House Bill 1070, which required the Colorado Center of Excellence to study the use of drones by emergency responders. The bill provided no funding to purchase equipment to produce the study, so the center is asking for donations on its website.
Without the funding, the Center of Excellence hasn’t been able to start the study, but the state may soon get a welcome assist from the federal government.
In early November, the Federal Aviation Administration, in partnership with the Department of Transportation, established a pilot program that asks state, local and tribal governments to test and evaluate the use of drones in their airspace. The Center for Excellence submitted its proposal Jan. 3. The program won’t provide federal funding but will allow the center to partner with private companies to help offset some costs.
“This felt very natural for us to pursue,” Robert Gann, acting director of the center, said by phone last week. “We see UAVs as an opportunity for us to really make our ability to respond to emergencies better.”
The center will partner with four Colorado county sheriff’s offices: Boulder, Mesa, Larimer and Alamosa. Through planned trainings and live emergencies, these agencies will test different types of drones and collection software, and explore night operations and operating drones out of the sight of the pilot.
“This pilot program the FAA is putting together right now will do more than (House Bill 1070) did because you are now getting operators like myself working with these agencies and coordinating how drones can better assist them,” Swathwood said.
Mesa County had one of the first UAV programs in the country in 2009 and has flown hundreds of missions. Boulder County’s UAV program began in 2012 with the first mission being to aid in the high-profile search for Jessica Ridgeway, a 10-year-old Westminster girl who was kidnapped and later found murdered in October 2012.
“There are lots of tools in an incident commander’s tool box. Not all missions and not all tools go together,” Stephen Meer, of the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office, said. “It’s not something we do willy-nilly. We think about it a lot.”
If the Center for Excellence wins this bid, the software from one of its private partners, DroneSense, will collect data on the angle of the drone’s camera.
“We will have a robust record of exactly what we did so we can honestly and openly answer any questions about where our aircraft were and what they were doing,” Gunn said.
The feds will select 10 applicants out of hundreds that applied for the three-year pilot program. If the center is selected, it will have until May 8 to sign the contract.