ENCINITAS — A confrontation over a drone flying above beachgoers ended with damaged equipment, a man behind bars and lingering questions over the line between public air space and personal space.
Augustine Lehecka, a Carlsbad electronic engineer, said he was enjoying the ideal summer afternoon at Moonlight Beach in Encinitas with friends on Sunday. A rock ‘n’ roll band was on stage, the water was warm for bodysurfing and the beach was packed.
Then came an uninvited guest.
Lehecka, 53, said a sophisticated drone flew over his group of about 10 friends, which included two young children. He said it was flying dangerously low, its four blades whirring overhead like a lawn mower, and its mounted camera swiveling back and forth apparently aimed at the group.
“We had like a peeping Tom,” he recalled Wednesday. “I felt threatened.”
He said he motioned for the drone to leave them alone, but it didn’t appear to work. Concerned for the safety of the group, as well as their privacy, he decided to take further action.
He took off his shirt and tossed it at the drone.
“I’m a big guy and my T-shirt is huge. It cannot be tossed more than 6 feet,” he estimated of the height. The shirt wrapped around the propeller of the drone, causing it to drop to the sand.
Lehecka said he considered the situation resolved at that point.
About 10 minutes later, he was met by sheriff’s deputies. They arrested Lehecka on one count of felony vandalism and booked him into Vista jail.
He spent around eight hours behind bars before posting $10,000 bail, said Lehecka, who remained shaken by his experience days later.
Turns out, the operator works for a drone company. The pilot could not be reached for an interview and a company representative did not return a reporters’ phone call.
In an interview with NBC 7, the pilot, who asked to not be named, said he was flying at a safe distance above the crowd and not invading anyone’s privacy. He said the damage came to about $750.
The District Attorney’s Office on Tuesday declined to press charges against Lehecka in the incident, an office spokeswoman said Wednesday.
Lehecka said the use of drones in such public places is alarming, especially since many drones can be operated via the Internet, from the other side of the world.
“What if they fly into a crowd of people?” he asked. “Where’s the accountability?”
He said he and a friend were buzzed by a drone just the day before in the Del Mar area, sparking a conversation at the time about the legality and safety of such activity.
Government officials have been scrambling to respond to the growing popularity of drones now that they are so accessible to the general public. Commercial drone traffic is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Authorities are pushing for legislation to ban drone flights near active wildfires, a growing concern. And NASA is testing an air traffic control system for drones.
Hobbyist operators are encouraged to follow safety guidelines that include flying no higher than 400 feet, staying away from other aircraft and airports, and keeping the drone within sight.