As you may now know, a man has been charged after a drone collided with a police helicopter in Los Angeles. DroneDJ has the inside story, including the original sworn complaint by an FBI agent.
Details first broke yesterday in a news release from the United States Attorney’s Office, Central District of California. It stated that “Special agents with the FBI this morning arrested a Hollywood man on a federal charge alleging that he recklessly operated a drone that crashed into a Los Angeles Police Department helicopter.” It further outlined that the arrest was made in connection with an incident that occurred during the early morning hours of September 18.
DroneDJ is now able to shed more light on what happened.
Early in the morning of September 18, LAPD were on the scene of a pharmacy in Hollywood to attend to a burglary call. The officers requested air support, and an LAPD helicopter was dispatched to the scene.
As that helicopter approached, it collided with a drone. The chopper was damaged and had to land; the drone fell to the ground and punched through a car’s rear windshield.
Precisely two months later, on November 18, a criminal complaint was filed.
That complaint includes a sworn statement by William Richau, Special Agent FBI. The complaint lays out that Richau has some expertise in this field:
I am a Special Agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”), and have been so employed since 2006. Since 2016, I have been assigned to the Los Angeles International Airport (“LAX”) Office of the FBI, where I investigate violations of federal law occurring within the airport environment and involving aircraft, as well as violations of federal law involving Unmanned Aircraft Systems (“UASs”), commonly referred to as “drones.”Criminal Complaint, US Attorney’s Office, Central District of California
The complaint also details which laws were allegedly broken in the incident: Title 18, United States Code, Section 39B criminalizes the knowing or reckless interference or disruption of the operation of an aircraft carrying one or more occupants while operating an unmanned aircraft where the action poses an imminent safety hazard to the manned aircraft or its occupants.Criminal Complaint, US Attorney’s Office, Central District of California
The Complaint’s section called “Statement of Facts” contains details of how the collision occurred. And here are those facts:
Could have been worse
The Criminal Complaint includes information based on an interview with an LAPD helicopter safety officer. In that person’s opinion, states Richau, this event could have been much worse:
On September 18, 2020, I interviewed LAPD Flight Safety Officer J. Coley Maddigan. Officer Maddigan is an LAPD Officer and a pilot with LAPD assigned to the LAPD Air Support Division. Officer Maddigan stated that, based on his observations of the LAPD helicopter after it was hit by the drone, he believed that, if the drone had struck the helicopter’s main rotor instead of the fuselage, it could have brought the helicopter down. The main rotor is attached to the top of the fuselage and extends outward. The drone could have easily hit and damaged the rotor or other critical parts of the helicopter like the windshield, which could have caused the helicopter to crash or distract the pilot.Criminal Complaint, US Attorney’s Office, Central District of California
Identifying the suspect
The Complaint also goes into some detail about how the FBI zeroed in on Richard Hernandez as the potential pilot. It was, initially, good old-fashioned detective work, supplemented by the Secure Digital card found in the drone’s wreckage. Again, from the sworn Complaint:
On September 18, 2020, LAPD Officer Gonzalez interviewed Witness #1, an individual who resided near the Pharmacy. According to my review of Officer Gonzalez’s interview report, Witness #1 told Officer Gonzalez that that the residents of a nearby house frequently flew “drones.” Witness #1 described the house and its location in detail. According to California Department of Motor Vehicles (“DMV”) records, the residence Witness #1 described is the residence where HERNANDEZ resides (“HERNANDEZ’s Residence”).Criminal Complaint, US Attorney’s Office, Central District of California
The SD card
On October 1, a judge issued a warrant allowing investigators to examine the contents of the SD card. And on that card, they found images of the man now charged with the crime. These images are contained in the Criminal Complaint document, though we have masked some faces.
On October 20, a Judge authorized three search warrants: To search Hernandez’s home, his vehicle, and his person. On October 21, that search was executed. Andrew Rene Hernandez was read his Miranda rights, which he waived. The Criminal Complaint says he then gave the following statement of events:
On September 18, 2020, a little after midnight, HERNANDEZ was at his residence with his son when he heard police vehicles and a helicopter approaching. HERNANDEZ was curious, got his drone, and flew his drone to see what was going on. HERNANDEZ launched his drone above his residence. He stated that it is hard to see the drone at night, but that he recalled seeing the drone’s green light facing him as it was ascending. As the drone was ascending, HERNANDEZ looked down for a couple seconds at the drone controller, which was attached to his phone. As HERNANDEZ looked up again at his drone, he saw the drone being “smacked” by the helicopter, which was hovering. HERNANDEZ stated that the drone went down and landed at a nearby residence. HERNANDEZ stated that the helicopter appeared to be a police helicopter. After the collision, the helicopter left the area and HERNANDEZ heard more police vehicles responding to the area with sirens. Moments later, HERNANDEZ walked around the block to look for his drone, but he did not find it. HERNANDEZ then saw multiple police vehicles at the Pharmacy across the street from his residence.Criminal Complaint, US Attorney’s Office, Central District of California
The Criminal Complaint does not name the drone manufacturer, but does state that its logo is visible on the photo where Hernandez is holding the controller. It’s pretty clear that’s a DJI controller, which is not surprising given its dominance of the market.
But certainly, DJI bears no responsibility for the actions of those who use its products, unless it is as a defect in the product that caused the incident. There is no indication that was the case here. Plus, by flying at night in an urban location, Hernandez was already breaking the rules.
“DJI has always urged drone pilots to fly safely and responsibly, and we lead the industry in developing safety technology for our drones,” says Adam Lisberg, DJI’s Corporate Communications Director for North America.
“We have also urged authorities to take action in the small number of cases when a drone clearly appears to have been deliberately used improperly.”
It’s alleged that’s the case here.
And, thankfully, such cases don’t seem to happen very often. One of the more recent involved a police drone and helicopter colliding in a flight over Canada.