DENVER — People who fly drones over wildfires just for the fun of it are becoming an increasing problem to firefighters who are trying to put out those fires.
That's why the Senate State, Veterans & Military Affairs Committee unanimously approved a bill Monday calling on the state to invest in technologies that can zero in on where those unmanned aircraft are flying.
The measure, SB20, calls on the Rifle-based Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting, the research arm of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, to study, and if feasible, implement a tracking system designed to find them.
Ben Miller, center director, said the problem of people flying drones over wildfires is growing.
"Statistically, that occurred in 2018 really at an alarming rate," Miller told the committee. "In 2018 nationally, there were 26 known incursions over wildland fires of drones. In all those cases, wildland suppressions were halted."
Miller said six of those incidents occurred in Colorado, making the state second in the nation for such events last year.
"The challenge that drones present to us is the fact that they are small," he said. "Right now, that process that I just explained is all based on visual line of sight, somebody within our operations seeing a drone and radioing that back."
Miller said drones pose a threat to firefighting aircraft, which have to be grounded for safety reasons. Doing so hampers their efforts to put out fires.
Miller said the center will look into ways to track drones by the signal used to fly them, a Wi-Fi network or some sort of radio frequency. He said there are new radar technologies that might also locate them.
"Obviously a small — say a one-foot by one-foot — object is hard to see," he said. "That poses two challenges. Number one, are we stopping because we think we see a drone? And, number two, are we not getting going again because we just can't confirm that indeed the drone is gone and the airspace is clear?"
The bill isn't designed to help law enforcement find people who are illegally flying drones over fires, but Miller said firefighters would be free to share information they obtain on who may be flying drones where they aren't supposed to with local law enforcement.
Last year, the Colorado Legislature approved a new law making it a class 2 misdemeanor to fly drones over fires, punishable by up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
The bill, introduced by Sens. Don Coram, R-Montrose, and Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, would cost about $350,000 to implement. As a result, it was sent to the Senate Appropriations Committee.