Image: Flickr/ Owen Evans
Yesterday, a drone nearly struck a police helicopter near the George Washington Bridge in New York City. Or, a police helicopter nearly struck a drone.
It sounds insane, but it wouldn't be the first time a police helicopter went after a drone. Late last month, a drone pilot in Great Falls, Virginia, posted footage of a law enforcement helicopter trying to push his drone into the Potomac River.
In that incident, there is video evidence of the drone being in the air before it was approached by the police. But back to what happened in New York City yesterday. A police spokesperson told me that Wilkins Mendoza and Remy Castro, both of NYC, were "observed by our aviation unit operating the drone near the George Washington Bridge."
"They weren't called in to do this job, they were on routine patrol," the NYPD spokesperson told me. "They flew very close to the aviation unit, causing the aviation unit to change its course to avoid it."
Here, the timeline matters. There's nothing in the New York Post's story or in the NYPD spokesperson's comments to me that suggest Mendoza and Castro purposefully went after a police drone. And if the NYPD really believed that, the two wouldn't have been released from court without bail.
Flying near a bridge, in and of itself, is not a crime. It might raise some eyebrows, but lots of people have flown drones near the bridges of New York City, and even when the police have gotten involved, they've had no grounds to arrest the pilots. Until yesterday.
Castro and Mendoza were both arrested on charges of felony reckless endangerment, charges that the defendants told the New York Post are unfounded.
"The copter came to us," Castro said in court.
The paper reports that the chopper "tailed the drones" after the close call.
I've been unable to reach Castro, Mendoza, or their lawyer—calls to the lawyer's office went unanswered—but it's not outside the realm of possibility that a police helicopter saw the drone, came at it, and, voila, police suddenly have a real charge to levy on them. It sounds crazy, until you take a look at what happened in Great Falls.
Here's the video:
Brian Needle, that drone's operator, was flying around the Great Falls National Park, where it is now illegal(ish) to fly a drone if you take off from within park grounds. He probably should have known better, but it's a ticketable offense, not a felony or anything that warrants a drone being forced into a river.
In the video, you'll see that a law enforcement helicopter intentionally flies above the drone, trying to push the drone into the river. Needle retreats, and the helicopter follows (the main action starts about 3:40 into the video), flying relatively close to the drone. Needle tells me that the drone dropped roughly 40 feet while the police helicopter hovered over it.
"It probably dropped 40 feet when I had the full acceleration up trying to keep it from going into the river. I tried to get it out from under them. In my opinion they were trying to knock it down," he said. "I got it back towards where I was standing to try to get it landed safely, and once the helicopter realized it was getting close to people, it backed off."
Needle says he'll pay the $70 fine and be done with it. I'm sure we'll hear more about what's going to happen in New York City, but there are two sides to every story, and it's just as likely the helicopter flew at the drone as it is that two hobbyists decided to go after a helicopter.
"I'm sure they didn't want to be anywhere near that helicopter," Needle said. "I certainly didn't."