Crafting regulations for firefighting drones in Morgan Hill

Representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration, NASA, and several public agencies convened at a conference Monday in the South Bay to discuss how to create regulations for firefighting drones. 

"We need to carve out a space in the sky for emergency services," said Harold Shapelhouman, retired fire chief from Menlo Park. 

"We've been flying drones since 2014," Shapelhouman said, talking about his department’s long-standing use of the technology for firefighter training and investigating crash scenes, overhead. He believes the next step in the technology is to use drones to help fight actual fires.  

The conference happened at the headquarters of Komodo Systems, a company that makes fire suppression materials and equipment. 

Company executives said they have made a more eco-friendly fire retardant that is "plant-based" that could be used with a fire-fighting drone. 

Alex Orozco of Aero Systems West, showcased his company's fire-fighting drone equipped with a tank for spraying fire retardant, suitable for remote wildfires.

"In some cases, it's very dangerous to send a manned aircraft into some areas; with a drone system, we can get it into that area safely," Orozco said.

Shapelhouman highlighted the advantages of drones in adverse conditions, noting their ability to operate in various weather conditions and smoke, unlike manned aircraft.

Alameda County leaders attended the conference seeking insights into availability and testing timelines for firefighting drones.

"I'd like to know when we can get this up in the air, when we can test. When we can find out the limit to this technology," said Alameda County Supervisor David Haubert. 

The commercial availability of fire-fighting drones remains uncertain, with industry experts emphasizing the necessity for further testing and regulatory adjustments.

"I was at a meeting at NASA Ames," Shapelhouman said. "They're all trying to figure out how they can better work together." 

The FAA currently requires drone pilots to maintain a visual, "line-of-sight" with their aircraft during operations – a rule that would have to be changed or adapted if you wanted to send a drone to a remote area for a wildfire.