California turns to jamming tech to disable pesky drones

Hobby drones used to record fires have drawn the ire of first responders and legislators

This image shows a detail of a U.S. Department of Agriculture public awareness poster warning people not to fly drones around wildfires.

This image shows a detail of a U.S. Department of Agriculture public awareness poster warning people not to fly drones around wildfires.

Legislators in California are considering jamming technology to disable drones that interfere with firefighting work even though federal regulations prohibit its use.

A pair of bills introduced this week in the California legislature call for jail time and stiffer fines for misuse of drones, as well as allowing first responders to damage or disrupt drones that get in the way of their work.

The legislation, proposed by Senator Ted Gaines and Assemblyman Mike Gatto, follows an incident in which drones interfered with firefighting operations recently in the Los Angeles region. The presence of unmanned aerial vehicles posed a hazard and briefly prevented the deployment of helicopters carrying water to douse the blaze.

Aside from public awareness campaigns about drone dangers, the legislators think more powerful tools are needed.

"It is the authors hope and intent that the advent of effective 'jamming' technology could keep drones away from emergency response areas and flight paths," Gaines' office said in a release.

Like Wi-Fi, drones use radio waves to operate, as well as GPS signals. A signal jammer can emit radio frequency waves that prevent devices within its range from establishing and maintaining connections. They can be used to block calls and messages to mobile devices, as well as block Wi-Fi and GPS signals.

But because jammers are generally indiscriminate, affecting all devices in an area, U.S. federal law prohibits their marketing, sale and use on public or private property. Offenders can receive hefty fines or time in prison. While there are limited exceptions for the use of jammers by authorized federal agencies, state and local governments are not permitted to use them, according to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.

"Use of cell phone jammers poses an unacceptable risk to public safety," according to a FAQ document on jammers by the FCC Enforcement Bureau.

It isn't clear how California might get around the prohibition. Gaines and Gatto were not immediately available to answer questions about the proposed legislation.

The bill that would allow firefighters to disable drones would also indemnify them if they damage hobby drones, which have been used to capture video of fires. In one video posted to YouTube last month, firefighters are seen spraying a drone hovering over a burning house.

In a message on Twitter, the San Bernardino County Fire Department reminded drone operators to avoid active fires. It embedded a U.S. Department of Agriculture video that warns of dangers to firefighters and residents, as well as penalties from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.

Tim Hornyak covers Japan and emerging technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Tim on Twitter at @robotopia.

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