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Utah lawmakers vote to disable and crash drones near wildfires

Jun 25, 2016
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From Utah lawmakers vote to disable and crash drones near wildfires

On Wednesday, lawmakers in Utah voted to approve a bill that would make it legal for firefighters or law enforcement to shoot down, spoof, or otherwise disable drones found flying over airspace that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) puts under temporary restriction due to wildfire.

The bill was passed after a small drone flying over a fire 300 miles south of Salt Lake City forced firefighters to ground aircraft. Utah’s governor, Gary Herbert, has said that the fire expanded and became more expensive to control after the drone incident. Herbert is expected to sign the bill in the coming days.

Evan Vickers, the Utah senator that co-sponsored the bill, said that firefighters and police would be allowed to shoot a drone down, but he added that they’d probably use technology to jam signals sent to a drone and bring it down that way. (You can see a video of that kind of solution here.) "The redneck in me [says] to shoot the **** thing," the Republican senator said to the Salt Lake Tribune. “But there are much more humane ways to do that,” he added.

The last two summers have been particularly busy for incidents involving drones and wildfire. In drought-prone California especially, drones became a nuisance to aircraft carrying flame retardant. The planes’ low flight patterns mean they’re more at risk for a collision with a drone and could have trouble trying evasive maneuvers to get out of the way of an errant drone. Last fall, California lawmakers tried to increase fines and include possible jail time for people found recklessly operating a drone near firefighting efforts, but Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the bill, saying he was reluctant to create “a new crime” that could get people imprisoned.

Utah’s latest bill specifies that a drone pilot flying a drone over a fire would face charges of a class B misdemeanor and could be fined $2,500. If the drone causes a firefighting aircraft to be diverted from its course, the offense is bumped up to a class A misdemeanor, which comes with a $5,000 fine. If the drone hits an aircraft over a fire, the drone pilot would face charges of a third degree felony, and could be fined $10,000. If the drone causes an aircraft to crash, the drone pilot would face second degree felony charges and fines up to $15,000. The bill would also allow a judge to order a drone pilot pay restitution for any damage the drone might have caused.

Utah lawmakers tried to pass a similar bill in March that would have allowed law enforcement to shoot down drones in certain situations. The bill also was the first to define “aerial trespass.” The bill was shelved, and the idea of shooting down a drone brought criticism—an FAA spokesperson told Ars that such an act would be a “significant safety hazard.” Ars has contacted the FAA for comment on Wednesday’s bill passage, and we will update if we receive a response.

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