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Feds Work To Keep Drones Out of Wildfire Areas

Bureau of Land Management
A drone flying over a wildfire.

Wildfires across the country have burned more than two millions acres of forest this year. And as FM89’s Ezra David Romero reports fire officials hope a new real-time warning system will keep civilian operated drones out of the fire fight.


The US Department of Interior says21 times last year drones were spotted over wildfires across the US. Mark Bathrick, the director of the Interior’s Office of Aviation Services, says that’s a problem because when drones fly over wildfires aerial suppression efforts are often delayed and can put people at risk.

“Aircraft were grounded six times last year and twice aerial firefighting aircraft had to take evasive action to avoid collisions with the drones," Bathrick says.

Credit Mike Lewelling / NPS
A fire burning in Yellowstone National Park.

He adds there’s already been 15 drone intrusions this year.


To keep drones out of the smoke the department teamed up with with drone maker DJI and two other airspace intelligence companies. Using data from the department DJI created an appthat provides real-time alerts and geofencing alarms that notify drone operators if they’re in or near a fire zone.

“Companies like DJI are attempting to use this data to provide warnings and in some cases prohibit those drones from flying where they shouldn’t be," says Bathrick. 

The department sends wildfire information to these companies. That info is turned into a map in an app and has a setting that alerts drone operators.  Bathrick hopes the prototype will be ready for a full public release by fire season 2017.

Ezra David Romero is an award-winning radio reporter and producer. His stories have run on Morning Edition, Morning Edition Saturday, Morning Edition Sunday, All Things Considered, Here & Now, The Salt, Latino USA, KQED, KALW, Harvest Public Radio, etc.
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