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Environment & Science

Good going, gadget geek: your drone nearly crashed a medivac helicopter

A drone.
A drone.
Photo by Vince LoPresti via Flickr Creative Commons

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"Lives weigh in the balance. We’ve flown thousands of missions safely. This is the first case of encountering a drone.” — Vince Ellis, Los Angeles Times

There have been several notorious cases already of drones interfering with firefighting aircraft during Southern California wildfires. But on Wednesday, a medivac helicopter had what might have been the closest call yet between an aircraft and a drone.

Todd Valeri, president and CEO of American Ambulance, which partners with a company that runs four medical aircraft in Fresno and Visalia, says on Wednesday, a Skylife chopper was returning with a snakebite victim. "When they were about two miles north of the Fresno air terminal, at about a thousand feet, the pilot observed a drone flying directly toward the aircraft." He took evasive action, and missed the 4- to 6-foot drone by just 15 feet.

It was a very close call, he says. "Had the aircraft made contact with the drone, it could have been catastrophic." In other words, a drone operator could have caused the death of everyone on board.

I asked Valeri what he'd want to say to the drone owner. "I'd want to have some confidence," he said, "that this wasn't done with malicious intent, and that some time could be spent explaining the safety concerns."

Congressman Adam Schiff has been one of the most vocal politicians calling for action on drones, and he told me, "Firefighters need to be able to do what's necessary to put down fire and to be able to operate safely. If there's a technology they can use to bring down a drone, they should use it. If there isn't, I'm okay with them using whatever. I really could care less whether the drone stays intact or the owner ever gets it back."

For more of our interview, and to hear what Valeri and Congressman Adam Schiff want done about drones, listen to the audio of our interviews.

(This post has been updated to add nurse Vince Ellis' audio interview and his statement that the drone came within 15 feet (not 20) of the chopper, and that the drone may have been up to 6 feet wide, not 4-5 feet.)