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Feds seek warrant for drone they say interfered with helicopters during Soldiers Delight wildfire

The April wildfire burned hundreds of acres and caused the evacuation of dozens of Baltimore County homes.
Credit: Maryland National Guard
A UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter operated by the Maryland National Guard deploys a bucket of water as part of a wildfire suppression effort.

WASHINGTON — Federal investigators sought a warrant this week to access data on a drone they say interfered with helicopters responding to the eight-alarm Soldiers Delight fire near Baltimore earlier this year.

In a warrant application filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Maryland, the Department of Transportation’s Office of the Inspector General (DOTOIG) asked a federal judge to grant investigators permission to access information on a DJI Phantom 3 unmanned aircraft and a cell phone used to control it. Maryland State Police troopers seized both items on April 6 after receiving an FAA alert that the drone was flying too close to emergency response helicopters working to contain wildfires in Baltimore County.

Dozens of homes were evacuated in early April as a historic wildfire burned hundreds of acres at the Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area in Baltimore County. Due to the size of the affected area, helicopters from the Maryland National Guard were called in to deploy water buckets while Baltimore County Police Department helicopters provided aerial support and helped direct responders on the ground.

According to the search warrant affidavit filed Thursday, a Baltimore County PD helicopter pilot reported seeing the drone flying over gas and power lines near the area of the fire.

“The SUBJECT UAS directly interfered with the helicopters’ ability to support the response to the wildfires because the helicopters had to repeatedly avoid the SUBJECT UAS in order to prevent a crash,” wrote Special Agent Daniel Irving, an investigator with the DOTOIG. “As a result, the helicopters were continually unable to fly over the necessary areas to provide support as the SUBJECT UAS was flying over these areas instead. The significance of the interference prompted the BCPD helicopter to search for the operator.”

BCPD officers were able to locate the operator of the drone, who was sitting on a dirt bike on an access road within the park. The officers landed the helicopter and interviewed the operator – a resident of nearby Randallstown, Maryland – who reportedly told them he did not have any FAA certifications to fly the drone nor was it registered with the FAA. To date, the drone operator has not been charged with a crime – although the affidavit suggested the drone could contain evidence that the operator violated two federal criminal statutes.

Under federal law, piloting certain unmanned aerial devices without an FAA Remote Pilot Certificate or without registering the device is a felony offense punishable by up to three years in prison. Another statute makes it a felony punishable by up to two years in prison to knowingly or recklessly interfere with wildfire suppression or emergency response efforts by means of unmanned aircraft.

According to the affidavit, helicopters being used in the wildfire suppression effort were equipped with devices that could have notified the operator there were manned aircraft in the area. OIG inspectors also want to determine if the drone ever flew above a 400-foot altitude restriction imposed by the FAA.

As of Friday evening, a federal judge had not issued an order on the DOTOIG’s request. The drone operator did not respond to a request for comment from WUSA9, although posts the operator made on a public Facebook page in April stated he only intended to fly the drone to take video of the fire and did not realize he needed a certification from the FAA.

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