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Unauthorized drone users could face hefty $20,000 fine if flying in Florence-affected areas, FAA warns

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer
September 21, 2018, 12:01:52 PM EDT

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As disaster relief efforts continue in the wake of Hurricane Florence, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has imposed restrictions on drone usage in areas affected by the storm.

The FAA released a statement warning that flying unauthorized drones in these areas could hinder local, state and federal rescue and recovery missions. People flying unmanned aircraft systems that interfere with emergency response operations could face significant fines, according to the FAA.

“Flying a drone without authorization in or near the disaster area may violate federal, state or local laws and ordinances. Allow first responders to save lives and property without interference,” the FAA stated on its website.


“Drones can be a great asset, absolutely, but when the FAA makes these blanket announcements, they’re trying to make sure that people who are in the best position to help are able to do so,” said Dr. Brandon Stark, director of the University of California’s Center of Excellence on Unmanned Aircraft System Safety.

“Search and rescue is not an easy task; you can’t just have a drone and think that you’re going to be able to fly it in support of search and rescue,” Stark said. “People take weeks of training to be certified for search and rescue operations, so unless you have that background, you’re really not as helpful as you might think that you are.”

Drone - Pixabay image


As the number of drone users has risen dramatically over the last five to 10 years, unauthorized or interloping drone use has also increased, according to Robert Hewitt, an associate professor of landscape architecture for Clemson University’s School of Architecture.

Hewitt, who is currently collaborating with other experts in researching the use of drones in public space, noted that while the vast majority of drone users are responsible and do follow the FAA’s rules, poor judgment can exacerbate already difficult circumstances.

“Worst-case scenarios for unauthorized drone use in emergency situations would include interference with aircraft communications; potentially striking aircraft; loss of power or control of the drone around groups of people; damage to critical infrastructure; and interfering with or colliding with other authorized drones,” Hewitt said.

On Sept. 14, the FAA issued a special notice restricting drone operations supporting Hurricane Florence recovery efforts to an altitude of 200 feet above the ground while operating in North and South Carolina, reminding operators that they’re required to give way to manned aircraft at all times.

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Any drone operators who want to offer support to the response and recovery operations in the Carolinas are asked to contact the FAA’s System Operations Support Center and also encouraged to coordinate with their local authorities, according to WCTI 12 News.

Authorized drones, which were utilized in the aftermaths of hurricanes Irma and Harvey, have been shown to be useful in emergency situations and disaster response, and the devices are becoming an integral part of disaster relief efforts, experts have said.

“We definitely have been looking at the developing market of drone use, especially in public safety,” said Bert Van Der Zaag, the technology lead for Motorola Solutions’ Edgybees drone technology.

“For incidents [such as] natural disasters, there’s a definitive use of drones that could be very beneficial primarily for public safety, but secondarily, to provide information to the public about what is going on in a particular area,” Van Der Zaag told AccuWeather.

For example, drones could sense and measure water depth of flooded parts of a city, which could help emergency management personnel decide whether a boat or a large truck would be sufficient for traveling through these areas, according to Van Der Zaag.

Drone technology could also potentially assist in saving people who are stranded in floodwaters or need assistance with being rescued from a building. “It helps public safety to understand what resources they need, which ones they have, how urgent it is and how they can be deployed to provide assistance,” Van Der Zaag said.

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