Drones are starting to become real robo-pests for some first responders.

During the North Fire in San Bernardino County earlier this month, five drones flying over the burn area prompted authorities to divert water- and retardant-dropping aircraft from the scene. Experts say drones could cause crashes similar to bird strikes for planes.

It reportedly was the fourth time this summer that drones thwarted aerial firefighting efforts. Some leaders are concerned that these kinds of incidents could lead to loss of life as blazes rage without firefighting aircraft joining the effort to quell them.

While local state Assemblyman Mike Gatto is proposing legislation that would allow authorities to jam or otherwise take down drones (perhaps even with nonlethal bean-bag rounds), a U.S. congressman is asking the Federal Aviation Administration to draw up rules that would require drone makers to adopt software that would prevent the devices from being flown in fire zones.

U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff of Burbank recently wrote a letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta asking him to consider requiring such “geo-fencing” technology as part of drone rules being drafted by the administration.

Schiff writes:

We understand the FAA is in the process of finalizing rules to regulate the operation of small commercial drones, and we urge you to use this process to incorporate measures directed at preventing the operation of drones in a manner that interferes with first responders. Among the steps that we believe should be considered is the possibility of requiring technological measures, such as “geo-fencing,” in commercially available drones that prevent them from being flown within a geographic area where they are likely to interfere with firefighting activities. 

Matthew Schroyer, founder and president of DroneJournalism.org, says many drones already have geo-fencing technology that prevents them from flying in certain restricted airspace.

He's concerned that broader geo-fencing rules would restrict public access to information. Schroyer told us:

What Rep. Schiff seems to be suggesting isn't as user-friendly or benign. Rather, it sounds like a technology being forced onto the public, potentially at the expense of civil liberties. If the intent is to block the press and the public out of certain airspace or regions by digitally hijacking private property, that could be problematic.

We asked Schiff if he's proposing permanent no-fly zones for drones in fire-susceptible areas. Here's his answer:

We are urging the FAA to consider the options available to prevent commercial drones from interfering with first responders, including technological measures like geo-fencing, which prevent drones from flying in a restricted airspace. FAA would need to determine whether the state of the technology would permit time-sensitive and remote changes to a geo-fence in the case of wildfires. We are not prescribing any particular technological solution, but given the clear danger posed by the reckless use of civilian drones near wildfires, it’s appropriate for the FAA to consider all measures within their authority.

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