With the wildfire season in full swing, the FBI has new assets in place in California for detecting, identifying and “neutralizing” drones that are illegally operated in firefighting zones. The bureau is working with the Los Angeles County Fire Department to leverage technology that can detect dangerous drone activity within 30 seconds of launch, according to the FBI.
The U.S. Forest Service reports that, in 2019, aerial firefighting operations were temporarily shut down nine times as a result of no fewer than 20 unauthorized drones detected near wildfires in seven states, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Washington and Minnesota.
James Peaco III, coordinator of weapons of mass destruction for the FBI’s Los Angeles field office, told CNN, “When the detection equipment finds the drone and identifies the operator’s location, we can very rapidly get that information to a ground intercept team who can then go make contact with that drone operator and essentially get them to stop flying that drone. The first thing we do is order them to bring the drone back, explain that there’s a wildfire and flying that drone during a wildland fire is actually a federal felony.”
Special sensors establish a boundary and track any intruding drone’s departure point, altitude, heading and speed as well as the controller’s current location, Peaco said.
Interfering with firefighting operations on public lands is a federal crime punishable by up to 12 months in prison. And the FAA is authorized by Congress to levy a civil penalty of up to $20,000 on drone pilots who interfere with operations involving wildfire suppression, law enforcement or emergency response.