2012/06/06 1 Comment
Fire season has just begun this year and already there have been two needless deaths that can be attributed to the FAA and Forest Service’s failure to embrace unmanned and robotic technology. There is absolutely nothing about the fire reconnaissance mission or the tanker mission that cannot be done better, cheaper, and more safely by an unmanned aircraft. These men did not need to be in that plane.
The crazy thing about it is that the Forest Service/BLM incident commanders are some of the few people in North America that can actually tell the FAA to go pound sand. They get to put up a TFR (Temporary Flight Restriction) over their fire and they control all air traffic in the TFR. Wildfire response crews do not do any night operations because it is considered too dangerous for them to fly at night. Still, the powers that be have not allowed unmanned aircraft to play a substantial role in firefighting despite successful demonstrations in 2008.
My most sincere condolences to the families of these men. They are exactly the kind of people that we need more of in society–people that will take risks to protect us all. We–as a country and a society–are literally killing these people with our failure to embrace unmanned and robotic technologies. I don’t want to be unsympathetic to the difficulties of change in government organizations and the good work that I’m sure the employees at Forest Service and BLM are doing, but when we’re making widows and orphans with our crappy policy, we all need to step up to the plate to take action to change it.
If I were the U.S. Congress I would:
1) Call in the FAA, Forest Service, and BLM and tear them all a new one for their foot dragging on unmanned aircraft.
2) Mandate the conversion of the whole tanker and most of the fire reconnaissance fleet to unmanned aircraft within 5 years.
3) Direct the Forest Service and BLM to provide unmanned aircraft support at night in the TFRs to incident commanders this fire season.
4) Give the BLM and the Forest Service some money to do this. One of the main problems with wildfire firefighting is that there is a negligible advance procurement budget, but a nearly unlimited budget for reimbursement of labor to fight fires. This is not a good deal for the country, spend a little bit in advance and lets save lives and money next fire season and every season thereafter.