By Jim Steinberg, San Bernardino Sun
Citing recent clashes between civilian drone encounters that slowed recent firefights, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, introduced the Safe Drone Act on Wednesday to address the growing problem of jeopardizing public safety by flying too close to wildfires and airports.
In announcing the legislation, Boxer cited the fiery July 17 incident on Interstate 15 in the Cajon Pass. That’s when civilian drones flying near firefighting aircraft forced them to leave for about 20 minutes.
The wildfire ignited 20 vehicles as it swept across the freeway.
Separately, at the Lake and Mill2 fires — both in San Bernardino County this summer — firefighting aircraft were temporarily grounded because drones flew above the fires, presenting a hazard to pilots, U.S. Forest Service officials have said.
“Our firefighters and airplane pilots should be focused on keeping the public safe — not worrying about unauthorized drones that recklessly interfere with jobs,” Boxer said in a statement supporting the legislation.
The Safe Drone Act is the Senate’s companion piece to legislation introduced by U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, in the House of Representatives in late August.
Boxer’s bill would make it a misdemeanor, subject to a fine and not more than a year in prison, or both, for someone to operate a drone in a restricted area, which is within a 2-mile radius of an airport or within two miles of the outermost perimeter of an ongoing firefighter operation involving the Department of Agriculture or Department of Interior.
Boxer’s office said that there had been a discussion about making the crimes felonies but it was felt that it would not be fair to saddle someone with the felon label for a lifetime.
According to the Consumer Electronics Association, drone sales in the U.S. will reach 700,000 units in 2015, a 63 percent increase from 2014.
Last week, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed three drone bills that would have prohibited civilians from flying drones over wildfires, schools, jails and prisons.
This week Brown signed into law privacy protections preventing paparazzi from using this new technology over private property.
Drone technology “brings with it beneficial applications in area of exploration, preservation, conservation and humanitarian endeavors,” Richard Hanson, director of government and regulatory affairs for the Academy of Model Aeronautics, told a House subcommittee on aviation Wednesday.
For nearly 80 years, the AMA has been representing those who fly model aircraft.
“The FAA has the authority to fine operators up to $25,000 for violations that rise to the level of endangering persons and property,” Hanson said. “However, despite the FAA and local authorities having the ability to levy hefty penalties, very few enforcement actions have been taken.”
Hanson said his association favors the FAA taking a more aggressive approach to enforcement against truly careless and reckless behavior.
But he also stressed more effort toward education of the many newcomers to drone technology who may not be aware of the safety considerations involved in their operations.
In December 2014, the AMA launched a “Know Before You Fly” campaign with the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems, the Small UAV Coalition and the FAA.
Among other strategies, it encourages manufactures to place safety brochures on their product’s packaging.