As flames swallowed 31,000 acres in San Bernardino National Forest late last month, a drone was spotted above a ridgeline.
The unmanned aircraft flew between two emergency planes that were dropping fire retardant. It forced flights to be grounded for several hours to prevent a mid-air collision, delaying containment efforts.
A similar scenario played out a day later in San Bernardino and again on Sunday on the steep slopes above Yucaipa.
These three incidents in only three weeks highlight a regulatory gap that California politicians are working quickly to close. The Federal Aviation Administration issues temporary flight restrictions during large wildfires, but there’s little at present that local law enforcement can do to punish scofflaws.
Potential privacy and security violations stemming from use of drones are also among concerns that lawmakers are grappling with, not just here but in other parts of the United States.
Last week, two California lawmakers filed legislation to keep drones from interfering with firefighting efforts. Although the bill wasn’t ready for public inspection on Monday, it’s clear that state Assembly member Mike Gatto, a Democrat from Glendale, and Sen. Ted Gaines, a Republican from El Dorado, mean business.
The legislation, if approved, would extend an existing law that prohibits interference with fire-fighting efforts, but increase the maximum fine when a drone is involved from $1,000 to $5000, with the possibility of six months in jail. The range of penalties would depend on whether the interference was considered accidental or incidental.
In a statement, Gatto said he was pleased to introduce a bill that “will punish criminals who ignore the safety of our emergency response professionals and the people they are trying to protect. There can be no patience with persons or groups who would risk others’ lives in this way.”
In February, Gaines and Gatto authored two bills specifying where drones cannot capture images. SB 170 would make it a crime to soar above a prison; SB 271 would ban flights less than 350 feet above a school without the written permission of the principal or a higher authority.
Both bills passed unanimously on the Senate floor and move next to the Assembly. Similar pieces of legislation introduced this legislative session in Montana, Maine and Mississippi vary in their scope, but each failed, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Alan is serial entrepreneur, active angel investor, and a drone enthusiast. He co-founded DRONELIFE.com to address the emerging commercial market for drones and drone technology. Prior to DRONELIFE.com, Alan co-founded Where.com, ThinkingScreen Media, and Nurse.com. Recently, Alan has co-founded Crowditz.com, a leader in Equity Crowdfunding Data, Analytics, and Insights. Alan can be reached at alan(at)dronelife.com