NYPD Chopper Ride-Along: Here’s What Can Happen If You Fly Your Drone Near Aircraft

In this FILE photo, A drone flying over the crowd hovers in the air on June 14, 2015 . PlayTony Barson/Getty Images
WATCH Police Crack Down on Drones

Police detained a Los Angeles man this week after he allegedly flew his drone dangerously close to an LAPD helicopter, which was on the hunt for a suspect.

After taking evasive action to avoid the hovering drone, the chopper diverted, tracking the drone operator to a Rite-Aid parking lot, where officers handcuffed him and took him into custody.

“I just got this thing!” the visibly perturbed man told police. “I don’t understand what I did wrong.”

Despite campaigns aimed at educating the public about laws governing the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), the Federal Aviation Administration has recorded more than 760 pilot drone sightings this year -- around triple what they recorded in all of 2014.

Many UAV operators are “just going up at their leisure, and they think it’s a game -- but every game has consequences,” NYPD aviation unit Lt. Richard Knoeller told ABC News’ David Kerley at a chopper ride-along earlier this month. "It's a very dangerous, dangerous instrument."

If a drone smacked into a helicopter’s tail rotor, “it would send us spinning out of control,” said Knoeller.

“You would have to be very foolish to think you’re not putting people and lives in danger by operating a drone thousands of feet in this congested airspace,” he told Kerley. “If it does enough to shred the blade or damage any of the parts to the tail rotor, the results could be catastrophic.”

When pilots spot UAVs in their airspace, they may be forced to take evasive action. Even at high altitudes, pilots aren’t immune: Drones have been spotted as high as 10,000 feet, according to the FAA.

Of course, operating drones near airports and airplanes is illegal. But hunting down operators flying them illegally isn’t always easy.

Spotting a drone from above is like looking for a needle in a haystack, and because drone batteries only last about 15 or 20 minutes, police generally have to work within a tight time window.

Though the FAA has vowed that violators will face “stiff fines and criminal charges, including possible jail time,” arrests are still relatively rare.

“People think it’s the cool thing to do, and it’s just not,” Knoeller said. “It’s life threatening.”

In New York, where Knoeller works, there have been only two arrests this year – and just four in all of 2014.

But NYPD aviation unit officers are using every tool at their disposal -- including sensors, infrared cameras, and GPS overlays -- to track the drones back to their operator. Airborne officers can then collaborate with teams on the ground to apprehend drone owners.

"It's almost a matter of time, you know, before something drastic happens," said Knoeller. "When all else fails, it's going to be time to prosecute."

As for the man piloting the drone near the LAPD chopper? He was taken into custody, but not arrested or booked.

“Didn’t have anything to arrest him under,” said LAPD public information officer Nuria Vaneges.

Meanwhile, the LAPD plans to turn over its report to the District Attorney to determine whether they have a case – and officers confiscated his drone as evidence.

ABC News’ David Kerley, Daniel Steinberger, and Nate Luna contributed to this report.