Two drones nearly collided with a New York Police Department helicopter on Tuesday, forcing the chopper off course in order to avoid impact. The incident triggered a search which led to the arrests of two men allegedly responsible for the drones.
One drone came within 800 feet (244 meters) of the NYPD helicopter, which was hovering at around 2,000 feet (610 meters). The incident took place near the George Washington Bridge just after midnight on Monday, according to Detective Annette Markowski.
The drone was "circling and heading toward an NYPD helicopter, which forced the officers to change course to avoid collision," Markowski said, according to Reuters.
The NYPD pilots “observed flying object[s] at 2,000 feet in vicinity of the George Washington Bridge, then circling heading toward the helicopter,’’ a police report said,
according to sources of the New York Post.
The helicopter then followed the drones north as they landed in upper Manhattan, along the Hudson River in Fort Tryon Park, at 00:35, sources told the Post. NYPD officers then found the suspects.
Mendoza Wilkins, 34, and Castro Remy, 23, both of Manhattan, were arrested and charged with first-degree reckless endangerment, Detective Markowski said.
“It’s just a toy,” Remy said later at Manhattan Criminal Court, the Post reported. “The copter came to us.”
Mendoza said they were just having fun.
“We were just playing with it,” he said. “It’s crazy.”
The pair’s lawyer, Michael Kushner, downplayed the incident.
“This vehicle can’t go above 300 feet (91 meters),” Kushner said. “They did nothing more than fly a kite.”
However, one friend of the pair said they had flown their drones as high as 5,000 feet (1,524 meters).
“When they first got them, everyone was going crazy and saying, ‘That’s some alien stuff!’” Jonathan Reyes told the Post.
Reyes said Remy and Mendoza spent $500 to $700 a piece for the drones they bought in the last two weeks.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is currently compiling rules and protocol to integrate unmanned aircraft systems into American skies, yet technical issues and coordination with defense officials will likely mean the September 2015 deadline set by lawmakers will not be met.
Amid mounting pressure to offer official drone guidance, the FAA is perplexed over how to handle a number of related issues, including what kind of detection system should be used to prevent in-air collisions with other aircraft, or how to maintain communications with ground control stations, Matthew Hampton, the Transportation Department's assistant inspector general for aviation, said in a recent report.
The FAA forecasts there will be around 7,500 active unmanned systems moving through US skies in five years, with over $89 billion invested in drone technologies worldwide over the next decade. Drones range from radio-controlled model airplanes to those with the wingspan of a commercial airliner.
Just last month, the FAA granted the first commercial drone license to oil giant BP, and is considering giving Hollywood production studios licenses to use drones while filming shows and movies. However, other groups attempting to use the technology have not had as much luck. For example, one search-and-rescue organization in Texas has sued the FAA for the right to use drones in its missions.
Presently, air traffic controllers - who guide hundreds of aircraft across US airspace each day - are not equipped to work with unmanned aircraft. At the same, no standards have been put in place to train ‘pilots’ of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
Meanwhile, the FAA is receiving little cooperation from the US Defense Department, which is by far the largest user of unmanned aerial technologies and has experienced a number of drone accidents over the years.
The US military and the CIA use drones extensively for targeting supposed terrorist suspects in several countries, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen.
Most non-military use of drones in the US has so far been limited to police and other government agencies. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in March 2013 that drones will soon be used by the NYPD and will become as ubiquitous as security cameras. More recently, New York Police Department Commissioner Bill Bratton said in May that he is “supportive of the concept of drones.”