Charges are being considered against the operator of a drone that flew over a crime scene perimeter in Hollywood on Aug. 27, causing a Los Angeles Police Department helicopter pilot to make evasive maneuvers to avoid a mid-air collision.
The incident occurred at approximately 11:55 p.m. over a crime scene near Sunset Boulevard and Western Avenue, according to Det. Kevin Becker, with the LAPD’s Hollywood Division. He said a patrol officer requested assistance from the helicopter in finding a suspect in the neighborhood. As the pilot was orbiting over the area at approximately 500 feet above the ground, he noticed the drone – an unmanned, remote-controlled aircraft – flying nearby.
“The pilot happened to see a red and green light on the drone and thought he was going to have a mid-air collision. It was a very dangerous situation,” Becker said. “It was very close. If the crew wouldn’t have seen this thing and it hit the tail rotor, it could have brought the airship down. It shocked all of us.”
Becker said the pilot discontinued the search for the suspect and followed the drone until he located its operator at a location near Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street. Patrol officers were notified and they detained the drone operator. Becker said the man was not arrested, but the drone was confiscated as evidence. The detective did not have any information about the crime near Sunset Boulevard and Western Avenue that prompted the initial search for a suspect.
Becker said it is uncertain what charges, if any, will be filed against the unidentified operator, but they could include interfering with police operations.
The incident in Hollywood is one of many occurring recently involving drones interfering with aircraft flown by emergency responders, according to Becker. In July, a drone flying over the North Fire in the Cajon Pass forced firefighting aircraft to suspend operations. The U.S. Forest Service has reported that at least eight instances of drone interference with firefighting aircraft have occurred in the United States this year, with four occurring in California.
“It’s not a joke,” Becker said.
The Los Angeles City Council last Friday endorsed multiple bills at the federal and state levels pertaining to drones. One of the bills – SB 168, authored by State Senator Ted Gaines (R-El Dorado), would increase fines for drones that interfere with firefighting and emergency responders. The bill would also grant civil immunity to any emergency responder who damages an unmanned aircraft in the course of firefighting, air ambulance or search-and-rescue operations. The bill was approved by the State Senate on Monday and has been sent to the Assembly for consideration.
“To think that someone would interfere with firefighting or emergency response situations to get a sneak peek or to post a drone video on YouTube is an outrage that is deserving of punishment and condemnation,” Gaines said in a statement. “I’m pleased that my colleagues agreed, and I look forward to Senate Bill 168’s continued support as it makes its way through the Assembly.”
Gaines has also authored additional bills that would restrict drones. SB 170, which is currently being considered by the Assembly, would make it a misdemeanor to fly a drone over a prison or county jail. SB 271 would make it illegal to fly drones over public schools serving grades K-12, and make it illegal to use drones to capture images of schools. The bill is also being considered by the Assembly.
Additionally, a bill by State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) to prohibit drones from flying over private property without the owner’s permission is under consideration by the governor. The senator has cited privacy issues, and has compared drones flying over private property with trespassing in someone’s back yard.
“Drones are a new and exciting technology with many potentially beneficial uses. But they should not be able to invade the privacy of our backyards and our private property without our permission,” Jackson said in a statement. “This bill is a balanced approach that will allow the commercial use of drones, should that one day become an option, while keeping our important rights to privacy and private property intact.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein has also authored federal legislation that is pending titled the Consumer Drone Safety Act, which would address drone interference with firefighting operations and in other areas with controlled airspace, and would require drones to be equipped with transponders so they can be tracked.
Additionally, Congressman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) is working with representatives of the Federal Aviation Administration to enact tougher regulations for drones.
“As often happens, this is a case in which technology has gotten far ahead of regulation, and we’re scrambling, both locally and at the federal level, to catch up. We need to update our regulations and examine our options to keep people from flying drones in dangerous situations, like around airports, above wildfires, or now in this most recent example – near police aircraft,” Schiff said in a statement. “The FAA has been studying the issue, and in February, they released a draft regulation that would help address some concerns, including by making clear where and how drones can be operated in our skies. I have asked the FAA to seriously investigate all options when finalizing these regulations to keep our first responders and pilots safe from drone interference.”
Becker added that he understands that drones can be fun and useful, but added that something needs to be done to protect the public.
“This incident is no different than the firefighting incidents,” Becker added. “We are starting to see more and more of this.”
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