Sunday, November 1, 2015

S 2156 Introduced – Drones vs Firefighters

Last month Sen. Shaheen (D,NH) introduced S 2156, the Wildfire and Emergency Airspace Protection Act of 2015. The bill would add a new section to 18 USC Chapter 65 (the chapter of US criminal statutes dealing with malicious mischief) making it illegal to fly a recreational drone near a covered fire or disaster.

The New Offense

The new §1370 would deal with fires that threaten “the real or personal property of the United
19 States, or of any department or agency thereof” {new §1370(a)(2)} or any disaster that “affects interstate or foreign commerce” {new §1370(a)(1)}.

The actual offense would be launching “a drone for recreational purposes in a place near a covered fire or covered disaster, and is reckless as to whether that drone will interfere with fighting the fire or responding to the disaster, if the drone does interfere with that fire- fighting or disaster response, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned for not more than 5 years, or both” {new §1370(b)}. Drones flown for agricultural purposes are specifically exempted from the definition of ‘recreational purposes’.

Violators would be subject to fines or up to five years in prison.

Moving Forward

Shaheen is not a member of the Judiciary Committee, so it is unlikely that she would have the political pull to have this bill considered by that Committee.


With the lack of definition of the word drone {it would have been better if the current FAA terminology, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) would have been used or referenced} means that someone could be charged with a federal felony offense for flying a small, 26-mm quad-copter in some manner that interfered in any way with fire-fighting or disaster response. Certainly it wouldn’t normally be used in that way, but all it would take is for someone to upset a federal prosecutor and they are off to the federal judicial system.

The one good thing about this bill (I’m reaching a little bit) is that it would make it a federal offense to fly a drone near a critical infrastructure facility involved in a ‘disaster’. The poor definitions here could be stretched to cover a drone based attack since that could be interpreted as interfering in disaster response (okay a bit of a stretch, but a good lawyer is good at stretching).

It would still be better to have legislation that could restrict the operation of a video surveillance equipped UAV over a CI facility. To keep the various environmental activist groups from pitching to loud a fit (Green Peace has used a small blimp to very good propaganda effect over a number of chemical plants), registering a drone flight plan with the FAA over a CI facility might provide a legitimate way around the CI flight restriction for activists.

The other area that is going to need some sort of exemption from these drone rules will be for news media operations. We are just starting to see news stations starting to use drone photography, but it is an area that is sure to expand. The media will vigorously object to any blanket prohibition of the use of their UAVs. In addition to an agriculture use exemption there is going to have to be some sort of media exemption.

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