When It Comes to Drone Tech, Wildfire Officials Need the Rights Tools for the Job

COMMENTARY Government Regulation

When It Comes to Drone Tech, Wildfire Officials Need the Rights Tools for the Job

Oct 10th, 2018 7 min read
COMMENTARY BY
John-Michael Seibler

Legal Fellow

John-Michael Seibler directs The Heritage Foundation’s project to counter abuse of the criminal law, particularly at the federal level.

Key Takeaways

The “uptick in drone flying over active forest fires and firefighting areas” poses a grave and costly threat to public safety.

That bill would authorize the use of counter-drone technologies to “[d]etect, identify, monitor, and track” drones, and if necessary, “disable, damage, or destroy.”

Another federal criminal law is not the best thing to pull from the legislative toolbox. Counter-drone authority is a better tool for the job.

If you fly, we can’t.”

That’s what the U.S. Forest Service, various state fire control agencies and Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo) are telling drone operators who might wander near wildfires.

As Gardner observed in a floor speech last month about wildfires in Colorado, the “uptick in drone flying over active forest fires and firefighting areas” poses a grave and costly threat to public safety.

Gardner aptly said that “We have to make sure that we provide our firefighters, those great men and women who are on the front lines of these fires, the tools they need to protect our communities.” 

Unfortunately, lawmakers are looking to an all-too-familiar tool — overcriminalization — to solve a new and complex problem: stopping drones that pose a public safety risk. 

Overcriminalization has become a form of Maslow’s Hammerfor Congress: if your only tool is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything like a nail. And in June, Sens. Gardner and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), as well as Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.), introduced the Securing Airspace For Emergency Responders Act to make interference with firefighting operations over wildfires a federal felony.

There already are laws on the books at the state (see, e.g., Colorado and California) and federal level to punish that wrongdoing

And those laws are doing little to stop drones from interfering with wildfire operations.

The tool that state and local first responders need from Congress isn’t another law criminalizing the same conduct; they need a meaningful way to deal with hazardous drone operators.

Today, there are a host of technologies that can take unlawfully operating drones out of the sky, but virtually all of these counter-drone systems violate federal law.

For starters, one statute (18 U.S.C. § 32) makes it a federal crime to damage, destroy, or disable aircraft which, according to the FAA, includes drones. Other federal statutes and regulations related to satellite and radio communications and aviation, among others, also place many counter-drone technologies off-limits even to firefighters and police officers. 

But the threat drones pose to first responders is real, and the cost to the public is high. 

It is only fair that Congress offer them some real help. 

Counter-drone technologies have the promise to stop illegal drone flights, ensuring safe airspace for firefighters.

Scholars have written about the crucial need to develop a comprehensive legal framework for counter-drone operations that identifies and provides relief from laws and regulations that are currently hindering the development of these platforms and capabilities.

Congress granted the departments of Defense and Energy legal authority to mitigate hostile drone threats in the 2017 and 2018 National Defense Authorization Acts.

Now, Congress is debating expanding those authorities to the departments of Justice and Homeland Security with the Prevent Emerging Threats Act of 2018, introduced by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.

That bill would authorize the use of counter-drone technologies to “[d]etect, identify, monitor, and track” drones, and if necessary, “disable, damage, or destroy” in furtherance of specific Justice Department and Homeland Security missions.

The bill would also permit those departments to use the same technologies at the request of a state governor or attorney general “to ensure protection of people and property at mass gatherings, where appropriate and within available resources.”

While that is a positive step, local communities look for protection to state and local first responders, who in turn deserve clear authority, training, and equipment, to address unlawful drone activities. 

Congress can find one model for sharing counter-drone enforcement with state and local officers in the current Homeland Security 287(g) program, which allows federal immigration officials to deputize local law enforcement officers to enforce federal law pursuant to a memorandum of understanding. 

The same approach could allow state and local officers, under federal supervision, to use existing technology to stop harmful drones.

That model could prove useful today in the effort to stop drones from interfering with wildfire operations as well as disrupting sporting events and even broader criminal uses like transportingdrugs and air-dropping weapons into prisons.  

Congress can offer states and localities a useful tool in those efforts. 

But another federal criminal law is not the best thing to pull from the legislative toolbox.

Counter-drone authority is a better tool for the job.

This piece originally appeared in the Hill on 8/10/18