NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — More than 600,000 drones were registered with the Federal Aviation Administration last year alone.
As they grow in popularity, so do the number of accidents involving some of the amateur aircraft.
To see how the NYPD is cracking down on rogue drones, CBS2’s Maurice Dubois took to the sky with the department’s aviation unit.
One drone hit a window on the Empire State Building, another hit an Army helicopter over Staten Island, countless more have collided, slammed, and smashed across the five boroughs narrowly avoiding mass chaos.
“People could definitely die,” Lt. Richard Knoeller said.
As a pilot with the NYPD’s Aviation Unit, Knoeller takes to the skies daily, tracking and cracking down on the operators of illegally flown recreational drones.
The unit can get as many as ten calls a day about rogue drones.
“There are a lot of lives at stake when you take a drone and just decide to operate it in this air space,” Knoeller said.
It’s largely prohibited to fly a drone in most of New York City, except in five designated parks.
A number of incidents over the last year, including a drone falling from the sky in Times Square, and another smashing into a residential building on the Upper East Side, show that people are clearly disregarding the law.
“You can’t take your drone and just stick it in someone’s window,” Knoeller said.
Kennedy Airport is the last place on earth you would want to see a drone.
“It’s the last place on earth right now I would ever think to operate a drone,” Knoeller said.
Yet, the officers said it happens all the time, prompting warning messages from air traffic control.
“If it hits the aircraft at the right time, it’s a perfect storm,” Knoeller said.
In the distance, CBS2’s Drone Force 2 looked like a little fly to those in the NYPD helicopter.
In close coordination and cooperation with the NYPD’s aviation unit, CBS2 launched the drone to demonstrate just how difficult it can be for a pilot to even spot a drone.
“That’s a spec in the sky. It would come up on us so fast we would have little time to react,” Knoeller said.
To catch illegal drone operators, the officers will follow a drone until it lands.The technology on the helicopter is so precise it allows the officers to pinpoint an exact street address so ground patrol can respond.
In most cases they said the offenders plead ignorance to the law, and they’re yet to come acorss anyone looking to use a drone for real harm.
Late last week, the Department of Homeland Security issued a terror bulletin warning of the potential use of drones.
“That’s something that you know, it’s always in the back of our minds,” Knoeller said.
It’s something they train for regularly.
“We just hope that that never happens, but if it is, the NYPD would be ready for it, so would the aviation unit,” Knoeller said.
If you get caught flying a drone illegally in the city you could face fines in the thousands of dollars, even charges of reckless endangerment.
At least one drone maker is working to make them more detectable and trackable by police.
CBS2 drone pilots are trained, licensed, insured, and follow FAA regulations.