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Drones Getting in the Way of Police Helicopters

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SACRAMENTO --

In many ways there's a battle going on for the air space above us between the law enforcement officers who need to have eyes in the sky and the hobbyists who love seeing the bird's eye view.

And the number of drones is growing.

The Federal Aviation Administration predicts 700,000 new drones could hit the skies after the holidays. But the CEO of Drone University USA, Barry Morris puts the number closer to one million. At R/C Country Hobbies on Folsom Blvd. in Sacramento, the unmanned vehicles are flying off the shelves.

"This is the Blade Chroma, it's one of our most popular ones right now. We're selling almost one of these a day," said employee Rob Watkins.

But drones already out there are getting in the way. Saturday, a CHP helicopter over Martinez had a near miss with a drone while searching for a stolen vehicle. It was so close, the pilot told reporters he had to bank his helicopter hard to avoid it. Officers tracked the drone back to its owner a quarter mile away.

"We're trying to catch the bad guy, and to have somebody playing with a toy and interfere with us doing our job like that, to me it's inexcusable," said Sgt. Greg Brown, with the Sacramento Police Department's Air Unit.

Brown said the story from Martinez keeps him up at night. Already his officers saw a drone flying just as high as them in West Sacramento a few weeks ago.

"They communicated with some ground units who made contact with the ground operator and let him know it wasn't safe," Brown said.

But tracking down the drone operator is not always so easy. Last year a CHP helicopter crew out of Auburn said it spotted a drone above Lincoln which was dangerously close to them. But the aircraft disappeared before ground units could find its owner.

While drone operators aren't supposed to fly outside their own eye sight, Watkins said often they're watching the on board camera instead.

"And that's where people get in trouble they get enamored watch the camera, and pretty soon it's not responding and it flys away," Watkins told FOX40.

Watkins said he always reminds his customers about the FAA rules of staying below 400 feet, and keep away from airports and manned aircraft. But like anything, he said the safety of the drones all comes down to the individual operator.

"It's basically common sense, and if you can find a way to legislate that, you'd have my vote," Watkins said.

Watkins said some drone manufactures have started to program their product so that it won't fly above that 400 feet mark. But he doesn't believe that will solve the problem, since the drones could easily be hacked.

Earlier this year state lawmakers passed a bill which would regulate drones from flying over wildfires, schools and prisons. But Governor Jerry Brown vetoed that law in October, citing a reluctance to create new crimes.