Unauthorized Drone Reports Soaring Into the Clouds, FAA Says

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By Alex Johnson

Airplane and helicopter pilots are being beset by drones, and the Federal Aviation Administration wants them to buzz off.

Pilots' reports of unmanned aircraft this year have already more than doubled all of the reports filed last year, the FAA said Wednesday — from 238 in all of 2014 to more than 650 from Jan. 1 to Sunday, Aug. 9.

Even worse, firefighters in the West have had to ground their operations several times because unmanned aircraft flew too near them.

Related: U.S. Could Reach 1 Million Drone Flights a Day by 2035, Trade Group Says

"The FAA wants to send out a clear message that operating drones around airplanes and helicopters is dangerous and illegal," the agency said.

Just in case you don't get the picture, it added: "Unauthorized operators may be subject to stiff fines and criminal charges, including possible jail time."

At least 138 pilots have reported spotting drones as high as 10,000 feet, the FAA said. If the FAA gets its way under new rules it proposed in February, no drones would be allowed to fly above 500 feet or over bystanders.

Several times this summer, emergency responders battling wildfires in California have had to ground firefighting planes to ensure pilot safety, commanders said.

In fact, crews battling a 23,000-acre wildfire in the San Bernardino mountains had to ground their planes twice in the same week in June, officials said.

"Losing the ability to utilize these aircraft has a serious impact on the success of the firefighters on the ground," the incident team said.

Then, on July 19, five private drones forced firefighting aircraft to leave the area of the North fire, which jumped Interstate 15 between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, destroying 18 passenger vehicles and two big rigs as they sat on the freeway.

"We do believe that this affects our firefighting operations," said Janet Upton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "Any time air operations are halted, that affects our ability to put out these fires."

The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors has offered a $75,000 reward for the identities of the drones' operators.