Fire agencies in Australia have threatened to ground their fleet of fire-fighting aircraft if Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) or “drones” stray into their airspace.
In comments mostly aimed at amateur drone operators seeking new photographic angles of active bushfires, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service has said that the unmanned aircraft are a major safety risk.
NSW RFS Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers said the issues arise when drones enter environments where there is “a lot of smoke, flames, a lot of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft flying in and out” making the addition of rogue drones a serious hazard. Similar statements have been issued by other states (and it’s led to grounding of fire-aviation resources in the United States too).
Deputy Commissioner Rogers warned that drone use could require the downing of all fire fighting aircraft. “If there are drones flying in the area that we don’t exactly know where they are or how many, then potentially the aircraft would have to put down,” he said.
Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority also issued a warning about drone use after viewing footage taken during the Blue Mountains fires, just outside of Sydney, in late 2013, which was in breach of CASA regulations. This video included overflights of fire-damaged communities and ongoing fire response by helicopters and ground-based crews.
YouTube: “Lithgow on Fire.” http://youtu.be/1EAp_NhbF68
The CASA statement warned that flying a remotely piloted aircraft in the same airspace as fire fighting aircraft created a real risk of a mid-air collision.
“If a remotely piloted aircraft hit a fire fighting helicopter tail rotor the helicopter could be badly damaged, with possible loss of control by the pilot. The collision risk means if unapproved remotely piloted aircraft operate on a fire ground fire fighting authorities may be forced to ground their aircraft, putting lives and property at risk.”
The safety authority also requested media not to use video or photographs from unapproved drones “as this can promote dangerous activities.”
Urban fire agencies have also grasped the potential for UAVs, with the Metropolitan Fire Board (MFB) in Melbourne recently committing two units to a pilot program. The two quad rotor helicopters deliver real-time information back to an incident controller through a combination of video, still photograph, and thermal cameras. The UAVs provide a more complete overview of an incident, including monitoring the movement of their own people and resources.
David Bruce is Communications Manager at Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC.