- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 19, 2020

The FBI arrested a man last week in what prosecutors said is the first federal criminal case ever brought against someone for flying a drone in an unsafe manner.

The drone crashed into the bottom of a Los Angeles Police Department helicopter flying over the scene of a burglary in September, forcing the pilot to make an emergency landing. The drone also fell from the sky, smashing the window on a car near the scene, the FBI said.

Pieces of the drone were recovered and the FBI obtained a warrant to search through the images saved on its camera and electronic storage card, and found images Andrew Rene Hernandez had taken of himself operating the drone in the months before the crash. A witness also fingered the apartment where Mr.

Hernandez lived, saying residents frequently flew drones from there.
When FBI agents interviewed him, they say Mr. Hernandez admitted to flying the drone, saying he wanted to see what all the police activity was about.

He told them he saw his drone get “smacked” by the helicopter.

He’s now charged with unsafe operation of an unmanned aircraft near an occupied aircraft. The charge was added to the criminal code in 2018. It carries a penalty of up to a year in jail.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles said it’s the first prosecution of this kind.

Cases have been brought in other drone matters, such as attempts to fly drugs or other contraband into prisons.

Federal prosecutors in New Jersey have charged three men with making at least seven drone drops at a Fort Dix prison. Agents learned of one of the drops in March and swooped in just as it was going on, netting 34 cell phones, nine chargers and 51 SIM cards. And a Georgia man was slapped with a four-year federal prison sentence last year for flying marijuana into a state prison.

Meanwhile federal prosecutors in Portland, Oregon, announced charges in July against a man they said flew a drone in restricted airspace during the riots outside the federal courthouse this summer.

A police department helicopter pilot told the FBI if the drone had struck the main rotor instead of the fuselage it could have brought the helicopter down.

If someone had been injured or killed, the penalties could have been much higher.

Unsafe drone operations have become a major risk, experts say. They’ve interfered with law enforcement operations and have also disrupted wildland firefighting efforts, forcing then to be shut down for a time while the drones are in the area.

The FBI agent who filed the criminal complaint in court is part of a new FBI wildland fire counter-drone team.

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