Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet is urging the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to consider the benefits Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) technology can provide for wildfire monitoring and suppression when it chooses up to six new testing sites for these aircraft. The testing sites will help the FAA study how to best integrate UAS technology into our national airspace in a way that protects the privacy and safety of Americans.
Congress passed legislation over a year ago directing the FAA to begin a process that incorporates UAS technology into the civil aviation system with six test sites around the country. The FAA has announced guidelines for its selection process with specific safeguards designed to ensure the privacy and safety of anyone living near a test site. Bennet is urging the FAA to locate at least two of the six sites in states that regularly experience wildfires.
In a letter to FAA Administrator Michael P. Huerta, Bennet wrote, “Unmanned aerial vehicles hold out the potential to help first responders map, measure, and combat fires in ways that will strengthen our firefighting capabilities. This technology can help first responders see through smoke, utilize infrared technology, and fly through areas too dangerous for traditional aircraft, allowing them to identify hotspots and predict directional changes in a fire more effectively.”
Bennet also pointed out that a major Colorado wildfire this year showcased the value of UAS technology. “This past summer, for example, UAS technology was used to detect a dangerous remnant from the Black Forest fire in Colorado, which firefighters extinguished before it could reach a major gas pipeline,” Bennet wrote in the letter.
Bennet introduced an amendment with Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) earlier this year to create two additional test sites that would focus primarily on fighting wildfires. By focusing on wildfire monitoring, mitigation, and containment, the test sites would give emergency management and aviation officials a better idea of how UAS technology can be used to combat the devastating effects of wildfires.
Bennet has been a strong advocate for wildfire mitigation efforts. In August, he introduced a bipartisan, deficit-neutral bill that would award competitive grants to states for priority wildfire mitigation and preparedness projects on federal, state, and private land. He was also successful in securing two key provisions in the Senate version of the 2013 Farm Bill that would improve forest health and reduce the risk of wildfires: his National Forest and Insect Disease Act, which would prioritize the treatment of national forest land that is suffering from insect epidemics, and his Permanent Stewardship Contracting Reauthorization Act, which would permanently reauthorize stewardship contracting, an important tool that allows the USFS to partner with private businesses and individuals to help thin trees and reduce fuel loads.
Bennet also led members of the Colorado delegation in successfully urging President Obama to designate the Black Forest and Royal Gorge Fires as major disasters. He was also instrumental in securing Emergency Watershed Protection funds for areas affected by last year's High Park and Waldo Canyon fires.
Read below for the full text of the letter:
December 6, 2013
Dear Administrator Huerta:
As the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) continues to consider applications to host one of six Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) testing sites, I write to request that the FAA prioritize wildfire monitoring and suppression as a key criterion for site selection.
In making this request, as the selection process moves forward, I also want to emphasize that the safety and constitutionally guaranteed privacy of our constituents is paramount. Our first responsibility is to ensure that test-site operations not violate the privacy or jeopardize the safety of any American. I urge you to continue to prioritize privacy and safety considerations as we cautiously integrate this promising new technology into our disaster response capabilities.
2013 was another historically destructive fire season for the United States. All told, 33,000 fires burned more than 5,300 square miles of U.S. land, destroying 960 homes and 30 commercial buildings. This year’s destruction is also clearly part of a larger trend. The six worst fire seasons of the last fifty years have all occurred since 2000, and overall wildfire suppression costs throughout the country have quadrupled over the past 25 years, as wildfires grow more widespread and more severe.
Unmanned aerial vehicles hold out the potential to help first responders map, measure, and combat fires in ways that will strengthen our firefighting capabilities. This technology can help first responders see through smoke, utilize infrared technology, and fly through areas too dangerous for traditional aircraft, allowing them to identify hotspots and predict directional changes in a fire more effectively.
Unmanned vehicles already have a proven track record of success in combating wildfires. This past summer, for example, UAS technology was used to detect a dangerous remnant from the Black Forest fire in Colorado, which firefighters extinguished before it could reach a major gas pipeline. Most recently, officials deployed an unmanned military predator drone to help provide round-the-clock information to firefighters battling the Rim Fire in California.
A GAO report released earlier this year, calling for improved planning to enhance federal fire aviation programs, cited “the need for better information on the intended use of surveillance aircraft . . . to determine the specific types of aircraft that will meet federal needs for aerial surveillance during firefighting.” It’s clear that unmanned aircraft have an important role to play as the federal government works to prioritize and fund a broader aerial modernization strategy.
Nearly two years ago, Congress passed legislation directing the FAA to select up to six UAS testing sites, in order to better integrate unmanned aircraft systems into our national airspace, and begin to leverage new military technologies to spur economic growth in our domestic aerospace industry. As this process moves forward, I urge the FAA to consider the benefits of deploying UAS technology to combat wildfires more effectively, and to ensure at least two of the six sites are located in states that regularly face these fires.
I look forward to working with your agency on this issue. Thank you for your consideration of this important request.