LOS ANGELES -- A review of FAA data shows the skies over Los Angeles are a hot spot for reports of drones flying in airspace reserved for aircraft. For LAPD Officer James Schwedler and pilot Kevin Cook, a drone strike could be catastrophic.
"A drone is like trying to spot a gnat at times. It could totally sneak up on you," Schwedler says.
That is now a real danger every time the 17 LAPD helicopters, which make up the world's largest law enforcement aviation unit, take flight.
While there has yet to be a collision, the helicopters fly low and fast. Pilots worry about even a small drone striking the windshield, the main rotor, or the one on the tail.
"If we impact a drone, we're going to have 5,550 pounds of aircraft with 130 pounds of jet petroleum coming down into a residential neighborhood," says Cook.
The airspace about 800 feet above Los Angeles should be free of drones, but more than 100 have been sighted by pilots at that altitude. Some have even been spotted thousands of feet higher. That's breaking the rules.
In late August a drone came within 50 feet of an LAPD chopper hunting for an armed suspect. The pilot dove 200 feet, an evasive maneuver, to avoid a mid-air collision.
Air division commander Captain Al Lopez says right now, the laws aren't strong enough to prevent these run-ins from happening. "There's no real regulations right now. There's regulations the FAA is recommending," says Lopez. "They're recommending that they stay in line of sight of the operator, that they don't fly over the unintended public, that they don't fly at night."
The city is filing misdemeanor charges against the alleged operator, 57-year-old Martin Sheldon, for using a drone to interfere with police. It's expected to be a test case for the future.
Lopez says he would like to see drone operators held to the same standards as any other pilot, which would give the LAPD options to prosecute reckless behavior. He believes it's time for legislators to act. "I hope it doesn't take an aircraft coming down because of a collision with a drone," he says. "I worry about that every day."