The Interior Department has unveiled a prototype app to keep private drones from interfering with aerial firefighting efforts.
With wildfires blazing through 2 million acres in the U.S. so far this year, forest managers hope a new warning system will keep unmanned aircraft out of the way of firefighting aircraft.
Drone intrusions over wildfires more than doubled from 2014 to 2015, with 21 drones spotted, according to an Interior Department statement released July 25. Fifteen intrusions have complicated aerial firefighting efforts in California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Alaska, Minnesota and Montana.
Several incidents have nearly resulted in collisions. The agency said it had been forced to ground some firefighting aircraft to ensure pilot safety.
Now a new prototype smartphone app provides real-time alerts and geofencing alarms to drone pilots if they approach zones where aerial firefighting operations are in progress. Interior developed the app with drone manufacturer DJI, which said the technology is similar to the real-time information on temporary flight restrictions it provides for major stadium events.
"This pilot project makes initial wildfire location data publicly available to commercial mapping providers that support [unmanned aerial system] operations, alerting drone pilots before they enter airspace over an active wildland fire," said Mark Bathrick, director of Interior's Office of Aviation Services, in the July 25 statement. "No responsible drone operator wants to endanger the lives of the men and women who work to protect them, and we believe this program, which uses the Global Positioning System to create a virtual barrier, will move us one step closer to eliminating this problem for wildfire managers."
Officials said they developed the app with DJI, the largest maker of unmanned aerial vehicles in the U.S., and two of the leading airspace intelligence and navigational services providers -- AirMap and Skyward.
The companies now receive information directly from Interior's Integrated Reporting of Wildland-Fire Information system and transmit it to drone pilots via AirMap apps and the geofencing system in DJI's GO flight control app.
Interior officials said they will incorporate what they learn from the prototype system into a "full public and industry release" of the application, planned for 2017. Future versions will "prevent drones from operating in restricted airspace once they reach a geofence perimeter."