Securing Airspace for Emergency Responders (SAFER) Act (HR 6235, 115th Congress)

The Policy

Synopsis

The Securing Airspace for Emergency Responders (SAFER) Act (HR 6235) amends the United States Criminal Code (18 U.S.C. 40) to prohibit and prosecute flying unauthorized unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) over a wildfire. As per the title of the bill, the SAFER Act, the goal of the bill is to prevent unauthorized drone flights and thus secure safer airspace over wildfires for emergency response purposes. Unlawful operation of a UAS over a wildfire will be fined, imprisoned for at least a year, or both. 

Specifically, the bill makes operating an unmanned aircraft over a wildfire illegal if not authorized by Federal, State, or local officials. The offense is punishable by a fine, imprisonment for at least a year, or both, as a deterrent to possible interference with firefighting operations.

Context

As consumer unmanned aircraft use increases, so does the need to address the novel benefits and challenges such technology brings. In the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (HR 658), Congress gave the FAA authority over consumer unmanned aircraft, also termed “drones,” and upheld this authority in John Taylor v. FAA (2017).

This bill focuses on the challenge created by UAS pilots who fly their aircraft over wildfires. Interfering with firefighting efforts is already illegal, as stated by the United States Department of the Interior at 43 C.F.R. 9212.1(f). The FAA also places temporary flight restrictions around wildfires and can fine violators up to $20,000. The SAFER ACT was written in direct response to the increased frequency of firefighting air assets, or aircraft that support firefighting operations, being grounded due to unauthorized aircraft in the same airspace.

When unauthorized UAS are detected, 18 U.S.C. 32 makes it illegal for emergency personnel to take down aircraft through new engagement methods like geofencing, so they instead ground firefighting aircraft to search for the aircraft and secure the airspace before resuming operations.

The United States Forest Service lists current types of firefighting air assets as among the following:

  • Air Tankers: aircraft that deliver from 800 to 8,000 gallons of fire retardant chemicals
  • Water Scooper: aircraft that scoop water from bodies nearby into a tank for release over fires;
  • Smokejumper aircraft: aircraft that transport smokejumper emergency personnel and cargo;
  • Helicopters: aircraft that transport personnel, equipment, water, and fire retardant; and
  • UAS: system comprising of an aircraft, a controller on the ground, and a communication link between the two. When used in firefighting operations as authorized, UAS have the potential to be safer and more flexible as their size allows them to fit where other aircraft cannot.

Local news agencies continue to report on unmanned aircraft interference in wildfires across the country that cause such air assets to be grounded.

  • In the 2018 Bocco Fire in Colorado, an unmanned aircraft sighting grounded firefighting aircraft for at least an hour.
  • In the 2017 Lightner Creek Fire in Colorado, unmanned aircraft in the vicinity disrupted firefighting operations four times.
  • In the 2017 Goodwin Fire in Arizona, an unmanned aircraft grounded firefighting aircraft and a suspect was arrested.
  • In 2016, the United States Forest Service reported at least thirteen instances where unauthorized unmanned aircraft resulted in the suspension of firefighting operation.

A report by Bard College found that the majority of incidents occurred above the legal maximum altitude of 400 feet, largely in areas where air traffic density is high. As stated by the director of the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), many of the hobbyists flying these drones may not be aware of the FAA or the regulations in place, despite the following government efforts to inform the public:

  • B4UFLY: The FAA released the app B4UFLY to inform hobbyists of where drones may or may not fly. The app shows a status indicator, reasons for the status, and links to further regulatory information. It is available for iOS and Android.
  • “If you fly, we can’t”: The United States Forest Service and the USDA promoted the “If you fly, we can’t” campaign for safety awareness. The promotional materials warn of the number of drone incidents and remind hobbyists to stay away from wildfires.

The Science

Science Synopsis

An unmanned aircraft is defined in section 331 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act as “an aircraft that is operated without the possibility of direct human intervention from within or on the aircraft.” An aircraft is defined as “a civil, military, or public contrivance invented, used, or designed to navigate, fly, or travel in the air.”

While authorized aircraft on a firefighting mission maintain communication with each other over radio, the operators have no way to communicate with drone pilots, and they rely on sight to detect unauthorized aircraft. Compounded with the environmental conditions near wildfires, these factors create situations where unauthorized unmanned aircraft in the airspace force emergency responders to ground firefighting assets:

  • Low altitude: firefighting aircraft fly close to the ground, in the range of a couple hundred feet, similar to personal unmanned aircraft. As described in the Unmanned Aerial Systems Traffic Management Science Explainer, below 400 feet, air traffic is not managed by the FAA, with the exception of airports. UAS traffic occurs most often in this altitude range, but management for UAS traffic has not yet been fully developed and approved ;
  • Smoke: smoke produced by the fire obscures the vision of pilots, making it more difficult to be aware of and respond to potential hazards in the airspace, such as unmanned aircrafts. For safety reasons, unmanned aircraft pilots should keep their aircrafts in view at all times; that precaution is made difficult by smoke; and
  • Crowded airspace: multiple aircraft are usually in use at the same time to efficiently suppress a wildfire. With less open room for individual aircraft to maneuver and limited traffic management systems for UAS and other aircraft, collisions are more likely.

Unauthorized UAS also pose a danger to emergency responders on the ground. If the communication link between the aircraft pilot and the aircraft fails, the aircraft could lose control, fall, and strike emergency responders or other personnel on the ground, causing severe injury.

When firefighting operations are suspended because of a UAS sighting, resources are diverted to search for the unmanned aircraft and clear the airspace. The delay in air operations could risk allowing the fire to grow larger and more dangerous if it spreads to untreated land. Suspended operations also prevents the timely transport of emergency responders to different locations. The aforementioned consequences of drones interfering with firefighting efforts can increase the cost of wildfire suppression and the possibility of physical harm to citizens or the destruction of property.

Scientific Assumptions

Drones are dangerous to other aircraft (Section 2(a)): Only a handful of researchers have studied the potential hazards created by drones in airspace, and most agree that they cause significant enough structural damage to pose a threat to larger manned aircraft.

Unauthorized unmanned aircraft can be identified (Section 2(a)(c): To penalize the operators of unauthorized UAS, relevant authorities must first detect the aircraft and identify the owner. In the Bocco Fire and the Goodwin Fire arrests, the operators were only identified after they uploaded footage from the aircraft on social media. Multiple researchers have however studied emerging detection technologies, and most agree that technologies like flight management software or radio sensing can be used to detect UAS and locate operators.

Relevant Experts

Kyle Snyder, M.S., is Director of the Institute for Transportation Research and Education (ITRE) Aviation Program at North Carolina State University. He coordinates military, academic, and civilian activities related to UAS in North Carolina.

“Responsible operations of unmanned aircraft in the National Airspace System is a balance of education, pilot skills, and technology. Protecting the integrity and safety of the NAS is critical [to] our existing air transportation system users, but also for securing a future for manned and unmanned aircraft to share airspace. The potential economic and lifesaving impacts of small unmanned aircraft operating in wildfire response events is well documented. We did our first live exercises of UAS for wildfire management in 2009 and 2010. The proliferation and maturation of the technology since then demands a reasonable and explicit regulatory structure for managing authorized and unwanted operations. HR6235 protects the firefighting response activities, while providing the enforcement power to penalize those that threaten the safety of the response. We must continue to educate and inform the growing unmanned aircraft operator community about responsible, timely use of tools and how to receive proper authorization to use them.

Relevant publications:

  • Arterburn, David, Mark Ewing, Raj Prabhu, Feng Zhu, and David Francis. 2017. ASSURE UAS Ground Collision Severity Evaluation Final Report. Alliance for System Safety of UAS Through Research Excellence [Accessed online Oct 3, 2018].
  • NextGen Air Transportation Consortium. 2017. UAS Airspace Integration Table Top Exercise After Action Report. North Carolina Department of Transportation Division of Aviation [Accessed online Oct 3, 2018].
  • Snyder, Kyle. 2010. Fire Fighting Table Top Exercise After Action Report. Association for Unmanned Systems International [Download].

The Debate

Scientific Controversies / Uncertainties

Misclassification of objects in airspace as UAS: As consumer UAS sales increase, the FAA has recorded a significant increase in reported UAS sightings by pilots and near misses with other aircraft. The FAA follows these reports with the warning that flying UAS close to other aircraft is dangerous and illegal. In response to the FAA reports, the AMA has called the reported UAS sightings into question: “The term drone continues to be used a catch-all for any object spotted in the sky.” The AMA noted that no collision between UAS and other aircraft had been confirmed and that objects like balloons, birds, and parasails have also been reported. Their statement in response to the FAA reports suggests that these objects may be mistaken for UAS by pilots and reported incorrectly.

Endorsements & Opposition

Endorsements

  • Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO), press release, June 28, 2018: “When managing wildfires, the last thing firefighters should have to worry about is interference from unauthorized drones.”
  • Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO), press release, June 27, 2018: “I’ve heard firsthand from the men and women fighting fires in Colorado about the problems and risks they encounter with unauthorized drones flying over wildfires. It puts the lives of firefighting personnel at risk and enhances the threat to public safety by causing the grounding of aerial firefighting assets because the airspace over a fire isn’t secure.”

Opposition

  • Representative Scott R. Tipton (R-CO-3), press release, June 28, 2018: “Not only does this [law] prevent the fire from being suppressed as quickly, but the firefighters on the ground are also left without the air support they may need to create an exit route in the event of an emergency.”
  • John-Michael Seibler (legal fellow researching federal criminal law), article, August 10, 2018: “Unfortunately, lawmakers are looking to an all-too-familiar tool — overcriminalization — to solve a new and complex problem: stopping drones that pose a public safety risk.… Today, there are a host of technologies that can take unlawfully operating drones out of the sky, but virtually all of these counter-drone systems violate federal law.”

Potential Impacts

The main focus of this bill is the deterrent of UAS interference with wildfires through the enactment of a criminal punishment. At the state level, legislators in California proposed a similar bill, S 168, to make it illegal to operate UAS over wildfires in the state. They intended to cause a decrease in the number of incidents of unauthorized UAS grounding firefighting aircraft by “[putting] teeth into standing state law.” Representative Scott R. Tipton, the sponsor of HR 6235, stated his hope for a similar outcome: “This legislation will deter [unauthorized UAS interference] in the future, helping Colorado’s brave firefighters perform their jobs in a safe and efficient manner.”

As an exception, this bill specifies that it is not an offense for personnel authorized by Federal, State, or local authorities to operate UAS over wildfires. According to DroneFly, a UAS repair service, allowing authorized drones in airspace permits the UAS-related firefighting industry, currently valued at $881 million, to continue expanding. The organization noted that the percentage of public safety agencies buying UAS that are fire departments has been increasing and that current use of UAS in firefighting operations has been successful in monitoring hot spots, search and rescue operations, and post-fire analysis of footage.

Another predicted benefit of for firefighting operations is the ability to continue operations at night with the use of floodlights or UAS thermal imaging, as reported on by National Geographic. Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln summarized the benefits of future UAS use in firefighting: “[They] envision their technology someday becoming standard safety equipment for wilderness firefighters.”