San Diego

Drone Operator Cited for Interfering With Shark-Bite Victim Rescue

“I would never do anything to hamper a rescue,” responds drone operator.

San Diego County Sheriff’s Department (SDSO) deputies on Saturday cited an Encinitas resident and former lifeguard for disrupting efforts to rescue a shark-bite victim.

Deputies said David Steel, 57, was flying his drone into an area reserved for a medical response helicopter.

The Sheriff’s Department said the helicopter pilot was forced to circle the landing area and delay picking up Keane Webre-Hayes, who suffered a life-threatening shark bite while diving for lobster off the Encinitas coast. 

“Several deputies saw a drone being operated in the landing zone area designated for (the helicopter),” an SDSO spokesperson told NBC 7 News. “The drone was a safety hazard, so the Fire Department Battalion Chief had to radio the helicopter to abort their landing.”

A deputy found Steel and ordered him to immediately land the unmanned aircraft. Steel complied with the command, but the deputy gave him a misdemeanor citation for violating a state law that prohibits people from flying a drone at the scene of an emergency operation.

Steel denied that his drone was anywhere near the helicopter landing area when emergency crews spotted his craft.

“It was not in the way,” Steel told NBC 7. “In a thousand years, I would never do anything to hamper a rescue.”

Steel said he was flying his Mavic drone over the ocean in the area of the shark attack, in hopes of spotting a shark. He acknowledged he may have flown the drone near the helicopter landing area when he guided it back to the ground, on orders from law enforcement.

“In hindsight, it was very poor judgment (on my part),” said Steele, who noted that he “fully complied” with the deputy’s order to immediately land his drone.

The incident highlights the challenges law enforcement faces in trying to control wayward drones that, in its view, threaten public safety.

Congress is on track to approve a new regulation that would allow the Homeland Security and Justice departments to destroy drones they consider to be security threats. 

“The threats posed by malicious unmanned aircraft are too great to ignore,” said U.S. Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “It is not enough to just tell drone operators not to fly in certain high-risk areas; we must give federal law enforcement the authority to act if necessary.”

The National Football League (NFL) endorsed the new regulation, saying there were “about a dozen incidents” last season, in which privately-owned drones caused safety or security problems.

The NFL’s Senior Vice-President of Security also referenced to the Senate’s Homeland Security Committee May 2017 incident where a drone “flew through Petco Park in San Diego and then crashed during the seventh inning of a game between the San Diego Padres and the Arizona Diamondbacks.” 

The NFL asked the Senate committee to consider giving state and local law enforcement similar authority to disable or destroy rogue drones.

In San Diego County, at least one law enforcement agency already has that technology. The Oceanside Police department has a device that can scramble radio transmission between the drone operator and the drone, and force the drone to return to its operator.

But NBC 7 Investigates found Oceanside police can’t use their “DroneKiller,” because the technology that powers the device has not been approved for use by federal regulators. To read more about that, click here.

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