In-depth: Disruptive drones could land you in jail

 

SAN MATEO COUNTY (KRON) — Personal drones are becoming a common sight around much of the Bay Area.

But with more amateur drone pilots taking to the skies comes some very real safety risks.

The small, unmanned aircraft could be downright dangerous in certain situations.

On Wednesday night, KRON4’s Philippe Djegal went in-depth on how drone hobbyists could be facing possible jail time for flying in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“If you own a drone, use common sense,” Pacifica police Capt. Joe Spanheimer said.

While the Pacifica Police Department and North County Fire Authority worked to rescue a person who had fallen down a cliff near Esplanade Avenue, ” a drone got in our way,” Spanheimer said.

It was “in between the helicopter and the person on the bottom there–very dangerous,” San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaff said.

Once the helicopter crew realized that a drone was also flying up above, Spanheimer says the crew had to suspend the rescue operation to avoid a mid-air collision.

“Ultimately, the helicopter that was involved in the operation was not used,” he said.

And firefighters had to slide down and pull the distressed person up from the bottom of the cliff.

The drone pilot is 55-year-old Jerry Destremps who lives near the cliff.

He was arrested and cited on a misdemeanor charge of sightseeing at the sight of an emergency or disaster by operation or use of an unmanned aerial vehicle.

Wagstaff is prosecuting the case.

“It’s the first time we’ve prosecuted somebody for this in San Mateo County history,” Wagstaff said.

But it’s not the first time across the nation that a hobbyist has been cited for illegally flying a drone.

Not all mishaps are reported, but a quick search on YouTube and you will see drones are causing quite a stir.

Earlier this year, a man in Jackson, Wyoming was fined for launching a drone, causing an elk stampede.

The Federal Aviation Administration regulates drone use.

“We don’t hesitate to take strong enforcement action when we come across situations where there’s a really egregious violation or a willful violation,” FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said.

Gregor says in the past two years, “we have initiated about 50 drone-related enforcement cases nationwide.”

Honorably discharged from the United States Air Force, Destremps tells KRON4 he’d been flying the area with his drone for months without a problem.

And that night, he did not know that the activity on the cliff was a rescue operation.

But drones are also a tool of public safety.

“We see it as a game-changing technology potentially,” Menlo Park Fire Protection Cpt. Chris Dennebaum said.

Dennebaum says their fleet of drones have already been used to monitor fires and search for missing people in the Bay.

But he says as drones become more popular, there’s worry that a hobbyist can derail an official fire district operation in the future.

“We’re not going to be able to fly if the airspace isn’t controlled,” Dennebaum said.

Last year, the FAA relaxed its rules on who, where, and when people can fly drones.

You don’t have to be a licensed pilot. But you do have to fly below 400 feet, the drone has to always be in sight, and the drone can’t fly within 5 miles of an airport, nor over crowds.

The drone also can’t fly near any manned aircraft, which Destremps is accused of doing.

“I think our case is very strong,” Wagstaff said.

And Wagstaff is prepared to go to trial on this case.

Destremps has already pleaded not guilty to the charges.

The trial is set for August.If found guilty,

If found guilty, Destremps could face up to six months in county jail, a $1,000 fine, and more than three years of probation.

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