The discovery of a radio-controlled copter on the White House lawn injects a new complication into the debate over the growing popularity of drones used by civilians.
The unintentional security breach Monday at the U.S. presidential mansion in Washington gives ammunition to those who want to see tight restrictions on who can fly unmanned aircraft and where, said Patrick Egan, a drone advocate. It also raises questions about how the government can even enforce such rules.
Hobbyists, filmmakers and other enthusiasts had been making progress in getting the Federal Aviation Administration to be more permissive about civilian drones. The Obama administration was set to release new privacy standards and was reviewing a proposal to allow drones for commercial purposes such as for sporting events and oil-field inspections. Then one landed on the president’s lawn.
“I think this might chill it,” said Egan, who has lobbied the federal government for broader approval to fly unmanned aircraft. “It definitely shows some holes in the plan.”
The owner of the drone, who wasn’t identified by authorities, called the Secret Service Monday morning and told agents that the small unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, was being flown recreationally when it accidentally crossed over the fence that surrounds the White House, Brian Leary, an agency spokesman, said in an e-mail.
“The individual has been interviewed by Secret Service agents and been fully cooperative,” Leary said.
The president, who is traveling, and his family were never in danger, according to the White House.
Such a flight never should have been attempted under U.S. regulations and commonsense safety guidelines, said Michael Drobac, executive director of the Washington-based Small UAV Coalition, which represents companies including Amazon.com Inc. and Google Inc. The incident shouldn’t be used as justification to slow the approvals for commercial drone flights, he said.
His coalition is supporting an education campaign on drone rules along with the FAA and other industry groups.
While no one was injured, it should still be a wake-up call for security and military officials, said Randall Larsen, a retired Air Force colonel who served as a department chairman at the National War College in Washington. Security officials have been discussing such risks and are concerned that the new wave of cheaper unmanned devices makes them a potential tool for terrorists.
“It’s an enormous concern,” Larsen said in an interview from Austin, Texas. “You’ve got to remember that a small amount of explosive can do a tremendous amount of damage if delivered at the right spot.”
Such concern has drone advocates fearing that the incident may become another roadblock to regulations allowing wider use of the devices.
“Everything that’s negative — and someone can look at this as very negative — doesn’t help people who believe this is technology whose time has come,” said Benjamin Trapnell, an associate professor of aeronautics at the University of North Dakota.
Lightweight quadcopters and other such classes of drones have limited ability to carry anything beyond a small camera and can only fly for about 20 minutes or less, he said.
“It would be quite difficult to weaponize unless someone had access to the right kind of explosives,” Trapnell said in an interview.
The most common commercially available quadcopters, such as SZ DJI Technology Co.’s Phantom 2, weigh only a few pounds and frequently come equipped with a camera.
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama were in New Delhi last night on a diplomatic mission to forge closer ties with India. Their two daughters, Sasha and Malia, remained in the U.S. though it wasn’t clear whether the girls were at the White House in Washington at the time.
The incident is the latest to raise safety and security concerns over the explosion of small, relatively affordable unmanned aircraft on the market. The FAA logged 193 reports of the devices flying too close to other aircraft, buildings or crowds from Feb. 22 through Nov. 11, 2014.
Drones have grown in popularity as prices have fallen and improvements in technology have made them simpler to fly and there are now hundreds of thousands in the U.S., according to Egan.
Since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, it has been illegal to fly planes, including unmanned aircraft, over Washington without special approval.
The FAA does permit drones to be flown by hobbyists provided the flight is purely for recreation and follows safety guidelines, such as flying no higher than 400 feet above the ground. The rules also say they shouldn’t be flown in populated areas or within 5 miles of an airport, both of which would prohibit a flight near the White House. Reagan National Airport is in Virginia across the Potomac River from Washington.
Entry-level small drones must be flown within a short distance of the operator because the radio-control signal has a limited range. Models may be equipped with better radios and video controls, which enable a pilot to fly the craft over longer distances.
More expensive or custom-made quadcopters are built to carry heavier sensors or cameras and would be capable of carrying bigger payloads, Trapnell said.
–With assistance from Del Quentin Wilber in Washington.
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