Alex Brandon / AP
The use of drones has skyrocketed this year, but their sudden popularity has also brought the unmanned aircraft near the paths of helicopters and commercial planes in far greater numbers, federal officials warned Thursday.
Pilots have reported unmanned drones near their flight path more than 650 times so far this year, far exceeding the 238 sightings for all of 2014, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Some drones have even been spotted hovering as high as 10,000 feet, prompting the agency Thursday to issue a warning about flying drones into the path of other aircraft, which is illegal.
According to the FAA, reports of drones near aircraft started to spike this year. In June 2014 there were 16 sightings. But in June of this year, the encounters spiked with 138 reported in the month, increasing fears of a mid-air collision that could result in bringing down a plane or helicopter.
John Amis / AP
“The FAA wants to send out a clear message that operating drones around airplanes and helicopters is dangerous and illegal,” the FAA said in a statement.
Operators who get caught flying drones near aircraft could be subject to stiff fines and criminal charges, which could bring jail time.
They could also play a role in delaying emergency responses, either to wildfires or medical transports.
In July, firefighters battling a brush fire in California pulled back flying water-carrying helicopters for about 20 minutes after they spotted up to five drones flying in the area.
The fire burned 20 vehicles flames crossed over Interstate 15, prompting drivers to jump out of their cars and flee.
In Dallas, the pilot of a Boeing 737 this June reported seeing a drone just “a few hundred feet” from the plane's wing as it began to land, according to the Dallas Morning News.
And earlier this year, another one of the aircraft crashed into the lawn of the White House.
But it isn't just federal agencies that have grown tired of the small unmanned aircraft, some of which can be equipped with high-definition cameras.
In Hillview, Kentucky, a 47-year-old man was arrested after shooting down a drone with his shotgun.
The Hillview man told local news station WDRB he shot down the craft after his teenage daughter, who was sunbathing, spotted the drone hovering in their backyard.
A drone Interceptor MP200, top, catches a drone DJI Phantom 2 with a net during a demonstration flight in La Queue-en-Brie, east of Paris, France, Monday, Feb. 9, 2015.
Francois Mori / AP
France, which has had issues with drones flying close to landmarks and nuclear power plants, has started testing stronger, faster drones with nets to grab others when they near areas that are off-limits.
Businesses who want to fly drones commercially are required to get permission from the FAA. Regulators, meanwhile, say they are working with industry partners to educate non-commercial drone users on where they can and cannot fly.
For those who break the law, however, the FAA warned that it is working with local law enforcement agencies to identify violators and open investigations.
The agency said it currently has “dozens” of open enforcement cases.