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Rogue Drones Pose Threat to Honolulu Fire Department Response

Unwelcome drones have been cited for distracting pilots with erratic motion, risking collision and delaying help for those in need. The unmanned aerial onlookers have been found to tail the department’s helicopters.

(TNS) — Lately when the Honolulu Fire Department has responded to rescues and fires, it has encountered an increase in unwelcome flying objects: "rogue drones." These unmanned aerial onlookers have been found to tail Honolulu Fire Department helicopters, distracting HFD pilots with erratic motion, risking collision and delaying help for those in need.

At a Tuesday news conference in Manoa Valley District Park where HFD landed a helicopter as a backdrop, HFD staff and a representative from the Federal Aviation Administration urged drone operators to steer clear of HFD emergency responses.

"If you fly, they can't, " said Dan Puterbaugh, FAA air traffic general manager for Hawaii, Guam and Saipan.

When an HFD helicopter approaches emergency airspace—where a hiker fell off a trail or a fire broke out—encountering a rogue drone can force the pilot to land or change course, according to fire Capt. Jaimie Song.

Although the department does not collect data on drone interference with HFD operations, "it has become more frequent, " Song said.

Justin Sato, an HFD helicopter pilot, provided a few anecdotes of recent encounters with rogue drones. One pilot set out to rescue a hiker with an injured leg by Manoa Falls. "As he was flying to the falls, he noticed that a drone was tailing him. He deemed that it was not safe to continue on with the mission, " Sato said. The pilot flew back to a nearby landing zone and then, after waiting for the drone to leave, rescued the hiker.

On another occasion, Sato said, a pilot was retrieving a paraglider who crashed into the cliffs at Makapuu. "As he was pulling the patient off of the cliff, he noticed that there was a drone just in front of his flight path, and so he actually had to set the patient back down and wait until that drone cleared out of the area, " Sato said.

When a brush fire broke out at Koko Head, a helicopter flew in to drop water, but a drone flew in close and followed the pilot. "He had to put down at the landing zone, which delayed getting that fire under control."

According to FAA rules, all drones that weigh more than 0.55 pound must be registered. Drones are not permitted to fly beyond 400 feet above the ground, putting the flying machines in a similar range to low-altitude HFD flight operations.

An additional concern is that rogue drones can't be communicated with, said firefighter and drone pilot Michael Mendez. Sometimes the pilot can be a half-mile away from the drone, Puterbaugh said.

Drone operators who fly into restricted airspace can face civil penalties of up to $37, 000, Puterbaugh said, urging the public to report violations.

(c)2022 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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