CA Senator Kneejerk Shows Technical Incompetence

Ted GainesIt’s been a whirlwind week at the drone newsdesk. In a recent wildfire along the I-15 at Cajon Pass, there were reports of interruption to firefighting efforts due to 4-5 drones in the area. And now a CA Senator was to pull some sort of magic out of his hat and not only allow firefighters to shoot down drones, and also use some unknown jammer technology to eradicate CA of pesky wildfire drones.

As far as shooting down drones, Senator Ted Gaines’ SB168 bill would indemnify emergency personnel from any damages they might cause to an unmanned aircraft. Although the bill does not specifically say they intend to shoot down drones, there doesn’t seem to be much other option to taking down a drone available to any state or local emergency services.

However it’s not at all practical, not even remotely. First of all, in order to hit a small moving target, the shooter would need to be fairly close – the world record for trap shooting is 130 yards. But in any of these drone incidents, the drone might be miles away. Not to mention, having police run around shooting weapons into the sky doesn’t exactly sound like a safe thing to do. Why encourage that? Will the emergency services also be indemnified for collateral damages they cause?

The Senator’s lack of technical knowledge is apparent when he says that his, “hope and intent that the advent of effective ‘jamming’ technology could keep drones away from emergency response areas and flight paths”.  I don’t realistically expect a state senator to be an expert on all subject matter such as engineering, however I do expect them to at least do a tiny bit of research on the subject that they are proposing legislation for. If they are not willing to do any research at all on a significant law, then they are truly incompetent. So for the benefit of Senator Gaines, let me educate you on how this technology stuff works.

Most of the hobby market of drones uses a technology called spread spectrum, usually found on 2.4GHz or 5.8GHz RF bands. The signal from the RC controller is sent as bits of data spread across a very wide shared spectrum with hundreds of other users and a plethora of different devices. In fact, of the users on 2.4GHz and 5.8GHz, RC aircraft (your drones) are a very small minority. Other users include:

  • Every Wifi hotspot, ever (including those in use by emergency personnel, hospitals, and senator offices)
  • Every single Bluetooth device
  • Zigbee wireless devices
  • Most cordless phones
  • Many alarm systems
  • Wireless keyboard and mouse devices
  • WiMax services

That’s just for starters. So in case you are wondering why you can’t just figure out what kind of signal drones make and just jam that, we that’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works. There is nothing different about the digital signals controlling a drone vs the signals that your constituents are using on their cordless phone when talking to police to see if they should evacuate their home. It’s a spread spectrum digital signal, so you can only jam the entire band and the thousands of users of it, all in one swoop. Wipe that out with a jammer, and it’s a bad day for everyone for miles.

RELEASED--MCCM Jerry McLain, CNRNW PAO LCPO, credit as a U. S. Navy photo by: MC1 Bruce McVicarBy the way, this technology actually does exist, sort of. The U.S. Navy EF-18 Growler carries around a nice unit called the ALQ-99 jamming pod, which can spread several kilowatts of power on the 2.4GHz or 5.8GHz bands, and prevent all communications on those bands. Needless to say, the US Navy doesn’t turn these things on around here. But hey, if Senator Gaines thinks his political prowess is strong like a Jedi, maybe he can get the $81M unit put into the budget, and mount one on a fire engine. Once turned on, you will find that your fire is no longer live on CNN. It all just disappears along with the drone.

So why not just use the fire tanker to drop water on those pesky drones? That would be a good idea that I could get behind. After all, what collateral damage could a water or fire retardant drop do aside from blowing a drone out of the sky? True, but in reality they would never be able to hit it, and I honestly believe they have better things to do. If the issue is they don’t want drones near firefighting aircraft, then the worst thing they could do is chase a drone with a firefighting aircraft. Seems a little silly once you think about it, doesn’t it.

By the way, I would love to say that I have read every line of this legislation and understand exactly what the Senator is proposing, but apparently no one has. CA bill SB168 was actually written in February of ‘15 as the “Insurance: annual statements” bill, having absolutely zero to do with drones or firefighting. It appears as if the Senator is going to completely modify a previous bill, possibly a dead bill, and completely change the title and the language. This is exactly what he did for SB167, changing it from a bill on greenhouse gas emissions to the  “Forest fires: interference: unmanned aircraft” bill, which creates stiffer fines for interfering with firefighting ops. Not sure why they like to revive dead bills with completely new subjects, but in the case of SB168, Senator Gaines hasn’t even got around to it yet. They only substance he has published is a press release.

Senator Gaines, this frog is not a danger to firefighters, nor are drones.
Senator Gaines, this frog is not a danger to firefighters, nor are drones.

Now here is the heart of the matter that honestly bothers me the most about all of this. The Lake Fire in San Bernadino had a report of a drone, which was most likely not a hobbyist, which then gained national news attention due to a Cal Fire spokesperson taking some creative liberties with the facts. And with the more recent North Fire along the I-15, we again have basically a pilot report of seeing 4-5 drones in a remote area with nothing other than a highway and some train tracks, yet no arrests, no photos, no video, nothing other than a vague report that is questionable. However now we have a CA Senator sponsoring two bills to create legislation, creating a legal liability for the state, asking for an technological solution that won’t ever come, and causing every news agency world wide to make every hobbyist with a drone look like a dick, all from a few unsubstantiated reports.

There are other questions I have. And they are questions from an engineering point of view, although for many non-engineers, they already have the answers in their mind, facts be damned. The question is, can a small drone even take down an airplane? People that don’t understand the physics and the materials science are quick to tell us all that a drone is going to take down an airliner full of passengers any minute now. Panic. But in reality the overall mass of these drones is not different than small and medium birds, even though the latter are covered in feathers, they can and do damage aircraft. 10s of thousands of times per year, in fact, just in the U.S. And just in case you want to pull out US Airways flight 1549 ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ event, a few facts for you. 1) A flock of 14-16 pounds birds, 2) One engine was actually still making power, however the Airbus aircraft computer had spooled it down to idle, unbenounced to Capt. Sullenberger, so he was trying to restart a running engine, and 3) there were no fatalities. So where are all the passengers falling from the sky? No it’s not something we would like to see caused by a drone, but statistically a drone strike will likely happen, however less frequently than bird strikes, and statistically the resulting damage will be similar, but injuries or fatalities will be astronomically rare.

So while Senator Gaines has everyone freaking out and hating on anyone that has anything to do with drones, he accomplishes exactly zero with his latest bill. I am not under any illusion that drones can do no harm to an aircraft, but all we really need to do is keep them away from airports, keep the drones low, and the manned aircraft high.

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