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FBI hunts pilot of drone that confronted CBP helicopter and sparked high-speed chase over Arizona

The FBI is searching for the operator of a ‘heavily-modified’ drone that flew into the path of a US Customs and Border Protection helicopter, orbited it several times and led it on a high-speed chase over Tucson, Arizona

The drone never hit the CBP chopper but it ‘was flying dangerous close’ around 10.30pm on February 9, the FBI said in a Thursday statement, which prompted a futile, multi-agency manhunt for the person or people who were piloting it.  

FBI officials told Tucson TV station KOLD that the drone – which was capable of reaching 14,000 feet and speeds over 100mph with a range of 70 miles – ‘orbited’ the helicopter several times and then led the helicopter on a circular, hour-long chase. 

The FBI said the drone made ‘erratic maneuvers’ and strayed into military airspace above the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, which is about five miles outside of Tucson. 

Officials described the drone as ‘high-powered’ and ‘heavily-modified’ but did not explain what modifications had been made to it.  

The drone is said to have a single green light on its underbelly, estimated to be between four and six feet in diameter and could have a four- or six-rotor configuration, KOLD reported. 

The drone’s ability to fly as high as 14,000 feet suggests it uses advanced technology not available on the commercial market, according to The Drive

The FBI is looking for the operator of a ‘high-powered’ drone that buzzed a US Customs and Border Protection helicopter (pictured) over Tucson, Arizona, in February

FBI officials told Tucson TV station KOLD that the drone 'orbited' the helicopter several times led the copter on a circular, hour-long chase

FBI officials told Tucson TV station KOLD that the drone ‘orbited’ the helicopter several times led the copter on a circular, hour-long chase

The drone appeared to launch from an area about five miles south of Tucson and flew across Tucson and north over Marana, Arizona, the FBI said.  

While the FBI is leading the investigation, it’s not clear if the US military was involved in any way in the initial incident or in the ongoing probe, The Drive reported. 

RULES FOR DRONES

You must not fly above 400ft (120m) and must keep a direct line of sight. 

You must not fly your drone near emergencies such as car crashes, firefighting, and search and rescues.  

You can only fly drones during the day. 

You must not operate your drone in restricted areas such as near airports. 

You must not fly above crowded areas such as sporting events and beaches. 

Similar incidents happened in the area have been reported in 2018 and 2019, according to The Drive. 

In 2018, a Learjet reported a drone flying at 40,000 feet above Southern Arizona, and in 2019, a drone was reported flying over Arizona’s Palo Verde nuclear power plant, The Drive reported.  

The FBI said no one was injured and no other similar incidents have been reported involving this specific drone, but the operator(s) will likely face a federal criminal charge. 

‘While the drone did not come into direct contact with an airplane or cause a pilot to make an evasive maneuver, the actions are illegal and extremely dangerous,’ the FBI said in its statement.

The ‘unsafe operation of unmanned aircraft’ became a federal offense in 2018 – with the passage of the The Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act.   

Andrew Rene Hernandez, a 22-year-old Hollywood man, became the first person charged under this law last year after he accidentally slammed his drone into an LAPD helicopter, forcing it to make an emergency landing. 

In January, he pleaded guilty, and in April, he was sentenced to probation and fined $500.

Davis-Monthan Air Force Base is about five miles outside of Tucson

Davis-Monthan Air Force Base is about five miles outside of Tucson

The Federal Aviation Administration has noted evidence of a ‘considerable increase in the unauthorized use of small, inexpensive [drones] by individuals and organizations.’

Drone operators are required to register any drones that weigh more than 250 grams with the FAA, according to the agency’s website

Drones under that weight limit and that are being used recreationally or as a hobby do not need to be registered with the FAA.

Federal law requires drone operators who are required to register to show their certificate of registration to any law enforcement officer if asked, the FAA said.

Failure to register a drone can result in civil penalties up to $27,500 or criminal fines up to $250,000 and up to three years in prison. 

How drones could tear up a plane or helicopter

Drones weighing as little as 400g can smash a helicopter windscreen, demonstrating how the devices pose a critical safety risk to aircraft.

One weighing 2kg could critically damage an airliner’s windscreen, according to research funded by the Department for Transport.

Scientists at the University of Dayton Research Institute flung a DJI Phantom 4 drone into the sky from a cannon to see what would happen when it collides with a Mooney M20 plane.

They worked to mimic a midair collision between a 2.1-lb drone and an airplane at a speed of 238mph.

They shot the drone into the air using a 2,800lb steel cannon with a 12-inch bore. 

Within three hundredths of a second, the drone smashed into the plane’s wing.

While many might think the drone would be destroyed upon impact, it actually tore open the plane.

The fast-spinning propellars on the drone ended up tearing through the plane’s wing, which damaged its main spar. For comparison purposes, the researchers also fired a similarly weighted gel ‘bird’ into a different part of the wing to see what its impact would be.

University of Dayton captured the crash using a 10,000-frame-per-second camera. They hope to conduct additional tests using similar and larger drones on other aerospace structures, including windscreens and engines, to show just how catastrophic drone collisions can be.


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