Over the past weeks, we all watched in sadness as wildfires in Colorado’s Black Forest raged out of control, destroying more than 500 homes and displacing nearly 40,000 people. As first responders battled the fires, critical tools that could have assisted them on the front lines — unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) — largely sat idle because of government regulations.
Unmanned aircraft could make firefighters’ jobs both easier and safer, providing them with situational awareness by flying through smoke and at night, situations too dangerous for piloted aircraft. UAS can see through smoke to identify hotspots, help forecasters predict the weather, drop fire retardants and alert authorities to people and property in harm’s way.
In spite of these obvious benefits, before a firefighter is allowed to deploy a UAS, they must first get approval from the Federal Aviation Administration. When fires are burning and spreading by the minute, this process often makes it difficult, if not impossible, to get timely approval to fly.
As a result, the U.S. Forest Service recently reported that it won’t be able to use the technology this year in the Northwest. In addition, current rules sometimes require that a chase airplane follow UAS for safety reasons, negating the benefits of unmanned aircraft and jeopardizing the people this technology is aimed to protect.
The limitations of manned flight can have serious consequences. Last year, 13 people were killed by wildfires, including several firefighters who died in an airplane crash. And every year, wildfires destroy billions of dollars in homes and property. In 2012 alone, these fires burned 9.3 million acres in states like Colorado, California and Utah, causing $1.2 billion in damage.
To ensure our first responders have access to this life saving technology, we, as an industry and as a nation, must help the FAA figure out the safety rules of the air so specific approval is not required for every mission. Until these rules are written, this promising technology will not be used to its fullest potential.
The good news is that legislation passed last year by Congress would pave the way for the integration of unmanned aircraft into the U.S. airspace by directing the FAA to write safety rules by 2015. Although the FAA has missed a few of the congressionally mandated timelines for UAS integration, progress is being made, including the ongoing selection process to create six UAS test sites around the country, expected to be completed by the end of this year. But we can – and must – do better.
Beyond assisting firefighters, UAS have a host of other societal and economic benefits. For example, UAS will help farmers survey their crops more effectively, allowing them to save money on pesticides and irrigation. They will help the energy sector monitor its pipelines and transmission lines, both on-and-off shore, and they will revolutionize how we study weather and wildlife. In fact, the UAS industry is expected to boost our economy significantly, creating more than 100,000 jobs over 10 years for a total of $82 billion in economic impact.
Indeed, UAS is the future of aviation and a new economic frontier. The U.S. currently leads the world in this technology. However, other nations are quickly catching up; already using UAS for civil and commercial purposes.
The wildfires in Colorado and other Western states underscore the importance of integrating UAS technology as soon as possible, and certainly no later than September 2015, the deadline Congress established. Our firefighters need ready access to all of the available tools to help them fight and contain these blazes. Moreover, in the limited circumstances where UAS have been deployed to assist firefighters, their value has been readily apparent. For example, in 2009 the Alaska Fire Service used a UAS to fly over a massive fire burning an area half the size of Rhode Island, which was producing thick smoke that prevented manned aircraft from flying. The UAS was able to take infrared images of the fire at night, giving firefighters valuable information during a dangerous situation.
Sadly, this year’s wildfire season is off to a forceful start. The tools and technology that could help fight fires more safely and effectively are available. While the complex and restrictive regulatory environment has slowed their deployment, the integration of unmanned aircraft will put these critical tools within easy reach of first responders. The integration must proceed swiftly — without any further delays — to help fight fires more effectively, saving money, saving property and most important, saving lives.
Michael Toscano is president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International in