In the wake of the devastating wildfires on Maui, it might seem like a smart idea to fly drones, particularly over Lahaina.
Some photographers are using drones to document the vast destruction, particularly in the town of Lahaina, as a means of documenting what happened. Already, there is already no shortage of chilling imagery, much of which is aerial imagery. Others might break out drones as voluntary emergency response efforts to help find survivors. And while drones can be an excellent tool, particularly in natural disaster situations, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is asking you not to fly drones around Lahaina right now.
That is, without prior authorization, of course.
The FAA on Aug. 15 issued a temporary flight restriction (TFR) near Lahaina, Hawaii, which is set to end on Aug. 23, 2023. This means that drone pilots are prohibited from flying their drones in the restricted area without prior authorization from the FAA, specifically for the purposes of “providing a safe environment for fire fighting.”
Drones may pose a safety hazard to firefighters and other emergency personnel who are working to contain the fires — and drone pilots who violate the TFR could face civil penalties of up to $27,500, depending on the nature of the violation.
Not sure where you can legally fly? Use the B4UFly airspace map (there’s a free desktop version or an app download), which is powered by a company called Aloft. That map offers real-time updates of whether or not a NOTAM or Temporary Flight Restriction is in place. Simply input the address of the area where you intend to fly, and the map can show you if that spot is blocked or not.
What if I do need to fly drones over Lahaina?
That’s not to say you can’t fly drones over Lahaina at all. In fact, drones have proven a valuable tool in the wake of natural disasters, like fires. They can be used to:
- Search for survivors. Drones can fly over areas that are too dangerous for humans to enter, such as still-burning buildings or collapsed structures. They can use thermal imaging to detect heat signatures that could indicate the presence of survivors.
- Assessing damage. Drones can be used to quickly assess the damage caused by a natural disaster. They can take aerial photographs and videos that can be used to help emergency responders make decisions about how to allocate resources.
- Delivering supplies. Drones can be used to deliver supplies to people who have been affected by a natural disaster. This can be especially helpful in areas that are difficult to access by ground transportation.
- Monitoring the situation. Drones can be used to monitor the situation in a disaster area. They can be used to track the movement of the fire, assess the risk of flooding, or identify areas that are still in danger.
For companies and organizations that might need to use drones for such use cases, the FAA has a special waiver process for drone pilots who need to fly in a TFR. To request a waiver, drone pilots must submit an application to the FAA, through the FAA’s expedited approval process known as the Special Governmental Interest (SGI) process. That application should include information about the drone, the proposed flight plan, and the reason for the flight.
To apply for a waiver through the SGI process, you must also be an existing Part 107 Remote Pilot — and your certificate must be current (find out how to renew your Remote Pilot Certificate here) — or you otherwise need an Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA).
It can be tempting to want to use drones to help with the relief efforts in Maui. Just do it correctly, as drones can actually be a hindrance to firefighters and other emergency personnel. Even without an ongoing fire, drones can interfere with their communications and operations.
Other great ways to help with the relief efforts include making financial donations. Some of the best organizations to donate to Lahaina relief efforts include:
- The American Red Cross: The Red Cross is providing food, shelter, and emotional support to those who have been displaced by the fires.
- Maui United Way: Maui United Way is providing financial assistance to families who have lost their homes in the fires.
- Maui Food Bank: The Maui Food Bank is providing food to those who have been displaced by the fires.