Two Notes About Flying Small UAS for Wildfires

The California wildfires have generated significant interest in small UAS. Here are two observations about flying small UAS for wildfires:

  1. If you have a small UAS, don’t fly it unless you are really, truly authorized to fly. Large wildland fires almost always have a TFR (temporary flight restriction) on all manned and unmanned aircraft- the equivalent of  police yellow Do Not Enter  tape. The TFR makes it safer for the manned aviation which is flying at low altitudes to evacuate people, drop fire suppressants, and monitor the fire. No small unmanned aerial system can fly, even under hobbyists rules, without a) explicit permission from the agency managing the TFR and  b) approval by the FAA. While a small UAS may not physically destroy a helicopter, a collision or a sudden swerve can lead to an accident, so flying an unauthorized small UAS during an event is a lot like dropping small rocks from an overpass onto the interstate— you probably won’t damage the car engine but it still might lead to a wreck.
  2. Night flying is a big win for authorized small UAS. Recent events as well as numerous tabletop exercises sponsored by AUVSI and CRASAR with CAL FIRE, Department of the Interior, and other agencies including those that supply smokejumpers, continue to highlight that drones are particularly useful at night when the fire crews are down and manned aviation does not fly. As seen in our deployment to Hawaii, getting permission to fly at 1,000 ft AGL gives much more coverage than 400 ft and there is less wireless dropout.