As wildfire season heats up in the Western United States, drone (also known as “unmanned aircraft systems” or “UAS”) operations near wildfires have spurred technological advances and prompted a series of state and federal statutory and regulatory changes. From a practical perspective, these new laws can impose harsh penalties for violations—including having drones shot out of the sky. From a legal perspective, these new laws reveal the tension between state and federal regulation of UAS operations and important questions about federal preemption.
UAS operations near wildfires create the potential for collisions with manned firefighting aircraft, such as air tankers and helicopters, because these aircraft fly at significantly lower altitudes than typical manned aircraft operations. Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) rules permit UAS operations up to an altitude of 400 feet in most places, but firefighting aircraft often operate at an altitude of 200 feet—creating a dangerous airspace overlap. In 2015, the U.S. Department of the Interior (“DOI”) documented 25 instances of unauthorized UAS operations over or near wildfires in five western states. This summer, nearby UAS operations have grounded firefighting aircraft at wildfires in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest, in Southern Utah and many other states. According to officials in Utah, grounding aircraft slows firefighting efforts and vastly increases the costs.
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