By Amy Kluber | July 27, 2016
Next year's fire season may be drone-free thanks to a new system developed by the U.S. Interior Dept. That effort aims to prevent drone pilots from interfering with aircraft fighting wildfires.
The prototype project, the department said, uses a smartphone app and initial wildfire location data to provide real-time alerts and geofencing alarms to help drone pilots avoid interfering with firefighting operations, whether deliberately or inadvertently.
Drones can pose dangers to firefighting helicopters and other aircraft, which fly low in smoke-obstructed environments while their crews are focused on releasing water or fire retardant. A drone's presence in the vicinity can delay or stop firefighting efforts.
According to the department, 30,000 wildfires burned 2.7 million acres this year in the U.S., and more than 15 drones have interfered with firefighting operations. Several resulted in grounded aircraft.
The department developed the system with drone manufacturer DJI and airspace intelligence providers AirMap and Skyward. The latter companies obtain wildfire information from the Interior Dept.'s Integrated Reporting Wildland-Fire Information program. That information is then sent to drone pilots through the app, AirMap's API and DJI's GEO geofencing system.
The department said data obtained from the prototype will be used in a planned release of the system beginning with the 2017 fire season. The system is expected to prevent drones from operating in restricted airspace when faced with a geofence.
Similar systems have been implemented for other uses, such as in prisons and nuclear power plants, the department said.
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