A 22-year-old Hollywood man pleaded guilty Thursday to recklessly operating a drone that crashed into a Los Angeles Police Department helicopter in what’s considered the nation’s first use of the federal criminal charge.
Andrew Rene Hernandez pleaded guilty to a class-A misdemeanor charge of unsafe operation of an unmanned aircraft, which carries a penalty of up to a year behind bars, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
U.S. District Judge George H. Wu scheduled an April 12 sentencing hearing.
Hernandez’s arrest came in November during National Drone Safety Awareness Week, which is sponsored by the Federal Aviation Administration and seeks to promote drone safety.
The case began when LAPD officers were dispatched on a burglary call at a pharmacy in Hollywood during the early morning hours of Sept. 18 and requested air support. As an LAPD helicopter approached the pharmacy, the pilot saw the drone and attempted to evade the unmanned aircraft.
Despite evasive efforts, the drone struck the helicopter, forcing the pilot to initiate an emergency landing. The drone damaged the helicopter’s nose, antenna and bottom cowlings, according to court papers, which state that “if the drone had struck the helicopter’s main rotor instead of the fuselage, it could have brought the helicopter down.”
LAPD officers located parts of the drone near the pharmacy and discovered a vehicle damaged by the drone as it fell from the sky. Further investigation, including a review of the drone’s camera and SD card, led to the identification of Hernandez as the drone’s alleged operator, according to prosecutors.
The FBI executed additional search warrants in late October at Hernandez’s home, and he admitted to flying the drone on Sept. 18 after he heard police vehicles and an approaching helicopter just after midnight. Hernandez said he flew his drone “to see what was going on,” according to court papers.
As the drone was ascending, Hernandez saw the drone “smacked” by the hovering police helicopter, and it fell to the ground at a nearby residence, according to the complaint.
Federal prosecutors in Los Angeles said the case constitutes the nation’s first use of the unmanned aircraft charge.