Drone ban derails US fire-fighting plans

DJI might have lived long enough to experience the bad side of too much success, after their drones were banned from federal government use in the USA; but now it seems it is the turn of the US government to face the full repercussions of trying to stifle good technology.

Well over 500 fires are raging in California right now, with the state governor Gavin Newsom confirming about 119,000 have been ordered to leave their homes as the state looks to save lives from blazes that have already claimed six people’s lives and turned nearly 771,000 acres of land into ash and cinder.

None of the fires have reached federal lands yet, but the Department of Interior is worried that the situation could get worse if that were to happen – for the department has been able to carry out controlled burning to only a fraction of the areas that will help stay ahead of infernos during the fire season.

An internal memo circulated by the department’s Office of Aviation Services revealed that the order to ground Chinese-made drones and drones with Chinese parts on them severely hamstrung the department’s fire control preparations, to the effect that by the end of this year, it would have succeeded in carrying out only a quarter of the controlled burning it was supposed to carry out had it proceeded with planned drone purchases.

As reported by the Financial Times, the memo warned that the department needed to replenish its drone fleet if it was going to “meet the demand of preventative measures mandated for the reduction of wildfire via vegetation reduction.”

The department is said to have planned to purchase seventeen more drones to add to its fleet.

But those plans were scuppered last year when interior secretary David Bernhardt ordered all federal entities to ground Chinese-made drones, amid concerns about national security implications of flying them over federal lands. The crackdown on China-made drones was part of a wider set of measures President Donald Trump’s administration put in place targeting Chinese technology companies.

DJI has denied the espionage charges levelled against its drones.

The department of Interior has the largest drone programme in federal government, which they use for many operations, ranging from firefighting to monitoring wildlife. But the department’s fleet of 810 drones had been stuck on the ground since the secretary’s gag order last year, pending a review into the security risks they pose.

Drones to help with fire-fighting were allowed to stay up, but they were still too few to make a tangible change, and new acquisitions were stopped.

“Denying the acquisition of UAS aerial ignition devices directly transfers risk to firefighters who must use manned aircraft to complete these missions rather than a safer option utilising UAS,” said the memo.

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