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Highway Patrol Helicopter in Close Call with Unregulated RPAS Operator

The operator of a drone that forced a California Highway Patrol helicopter pilot to take evasive action Saturday night could face federal prosecution, according to law enforcement officials.

A CHP helicopter searching for a stolen vehicle was flying above eastbound Highway 4 in Martinez at about 9 p.m. when the pilot spotted a red light outside of the cabin, straight ahead, and very close, said Officer James Andrews, spokesman for the CHP air operations unit.

The pilot determined it was a drone, flying at the same altitude of 700 to 800 feet, and veered to the right to avoid a collision. The drone passed to the left, close to the helicopter. The pilot circled back and illuminated the drone with a spotlight. He followed it, watched it descend for a landing, and directed Martinez police to Roux Court.

A Martinez police officer spotted a man carrying a drone into his front yard. The officer interviewed the man, whose name has not been released, and forwarded a report to the CHP, said Martinez police Sgt. Fred Ferrer. The man was not arrested or cited, but the incident will be investigated by federal and local authorities, and he could face federal charges, Andrews said.

“This was a close call,” Andrews said. “Everyone got away without injury. But it could have been worse.”

Andrews said he hasn’t seen the drone or read the interview with its pilot, but he said remote-control flying devices pose a serious threat to licensed aircraft.

“Absolute worse-case scenario: The drone could come through window and take out the pilot, and the helicopter could come down,” he said.

Andrews said the incident was the first time a CHP helicopter in the Bay Area had to take evasive action to avoid hitting a drone. But the rising popularity and falling prices of drones are expected to put many more in the skies around Christmas. That worries law enforcement officials as well as the Federal Aviation Administration.

“It’s definitely something that’s very concerning to us,” Andrews said. “With more people getting drones over the holidays, it is going to get worse.”

He advised drone owners to “use some common sense,” flying below the tree line, away from neighbours’ homes and far from piloted aircraft.

Andrews, also a CHP helicopter pilot who was off duty Saturday, acknowledged that he has a personal interest in keeping drones out of the way of piloted aircraft.

“If your level of aircraft experience is that you ordered something from Amazon,” he said, “you ought to stay out of the federal air traffic system.”

Source: SF Gate

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