Drone pilot pleads guilty to chopper collision; could face one year in prison

In what appears to be a first, a drone pilot has pleaded guilty to colliding his drone into a Los Angeles Police Department helicopter. It’s believed to be the first criminal conviction in the United States for unsafe operation of an unmanned aircraft.

This story got a lot of buzz when it first came out. Back in September, there was a burglary at a pharmacy in Hollywood. Someone from the neighborhood had a drone up in the air, apparently trying to see what was going on. Well, the police also wanted to see what was going on, and had called in a helicopter to assist. The chopper collided with a drone, sustained some damage, and had to make an emergency landing.

In November, we reported that charges had been laid with this story.

Charges laid

As police investigated the event, they found the bits and pieces that were left of a drone on the ground. Amidst that wreckage was a micro-SD card. And on that card? A variety of photos of the man they soon honed in on as the suspect. He had a number of selfies he’d taken with the drone:

Accused Andrew Rene Hernandez, operating what we think was a DJI Mavic Pro

Once the investigation identified Hernandez, charges were laid.

News release on conviction

In a news release, the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of California said Hernandez entered a guilty plea on Thursday, January 14. It also offered some background information:

An LAPD helicopter operated by two police officers was flying towards a reported emergency at a pharmacy in Hollywood. As the helicopter approached the pharmacy, the pilot saw the drone and attempted to evade the unmanned aircraft. Despite the evasive efforts, the drone stuck the helicopter, forcing the pilot to initiate an emergency landing. According to an affidavit filed with a criminal complaint in this case, “if the drone had struck the helicopter’s main rotor instead of the fuselage, it could have brought the helicopter down.” LAPD officers located parts of the drone near the pharmacy and discovered a vehicle damaged by the drone as it fell from the sky. Further investigation, including a review of the drone’s camera and secure digital (SD) card, led to the identification of Hernandez as the drone’s operator, according to court documents.

United States Attorney’s Office news release

The DJI connection

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the drone involved was built by DJI. After all, roughly four out of every five drones sold are made by the company.

But – obviously – DJI bears no responsibility for the actions of a pilot who broke the law, anymore than a Tesla is responsible for someone speeding. Rules exist for a reason and, for the sake of air safety, should be followed.

What’s next for Hernandez?

He’ll be sentenced April 12, “at which time Hernandez will face a statutory maximum sentence of one year in federal prison,” according to the news release.

That’s a pretty stiff outcome for a stupid flight.

But, as we know, it could have been worse.

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