Drone operators have flown too close to dozens of police and firefighting aircraft since 2014, forcing emergency detours or delays in responding to fires in some cases, a review of federal safety records found.
The incidents are raising alarm among federal agencies who must prepare for a rapid surge in drone sales nationwide. An estimated 700,000 drones will be sold in 2015, more than half of them during the holiday season, according to the Consumer Technology Association.
Drones are dangerous when they encroach on aircraft, which is particularly possible on takeoff and landing. Even a small drone can damage a propeller or an engine, if it is sucked in.
"We’re literally talking about life and death situations, when folks do stupid things," said U.S. Forest Service Fire and Aviation Management director Tom Harbour.
Forest service workers have faced about 30 close calls since early 2014, according to records obtained from the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the Freedom of Information Act.
In September, at least two firefighting helicopters were ordered to hold positions away from the Sundance wildfire in California because a pilot spotted a drone making several trips over the flames, the records show.
"We’re not going to kill somebody over some improper use of a drone in that airspace," Harbour said.
The I-Team’s review also found about two dozen close calls between drones and police or medical aircraft. In one 2014 incident, a drone was spotted near a Prince George's County Police helicopter above a line of trees in College Park, Maryland.
In June 2014, US Park Police issued a $70 fine against drone operator Brian Needle. Needle said he was flying a drone below the tree-line above Great Falls when a U.S. Park Police helicopter came within close range.
Needle said he didn't see the helicopter "until it came right at us."
“We had a great time. We flew it around for 20 minutes, until all hell broke loose," Needle said.
Police were also notified about illegal drone flights near a Washington Redskins football game in 2014, a Washington Nationals game in 2015 and near commercial flights near Dulles and Baltimore-Washington international airports, the I-Team found.
The Federal Aviation Administration says flying drones is prohibited anywhere outside in Washington, D.C. and any city or town within a 30-mile radius of Ronald-Reagan Washington National Airport.
And the FAA launched a drone registration program this week, requiring drone operators to file official paperwork to fly their aircraft.