A government employee told the Secret Service it was his drone that crashed on the White House grounds Monday. The man, who doesn't work for the White House, was described by The Washington Post as a "recreational drone user" who was flying the quadcopter in the area near the White House around 3 a.m. Monday when he lost control of it. The Secret Service says the drone never posed a threat to the White House, and President Obama is in India, so he was not home at the time of the incident. According to a statement by the Secret Service:
The individual has been interviewed by Secret Service agents and been fully cooperative. Initial indications are that this incident occurred as a result of recreational use of the device.
But Monday was not the first time a drone has breached the restricted air space around the White House, The Washington Post reported: There were two drone security incidents in the three-mile no-fly zone around 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in August, and one in July. Drones that small would not be able to carry weapons, experts told The New York Times, and the one that crashed did not have a camera on it.
The Federal Aviation Administration bans commercial drone flights, and hobbyists are prohibited from flying them above 400 feet or within five miles of an airport, according to the Associated Press. But given their easy availability (you can buy one at Toys "R" Us, for goodness' sake), there are those who think it's time to regulate them more tightly.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, who is chairman of the House Oversight Committee told the AP he was concerned about the incident, especially in light of the security breaches the White House has already suffered this year, including a knife-wielding man who made it all the way to the North Portico doors before being caught. Chaffetz told the AP:
Any time you can breach the White House perimeter, it's deeply concerning. You don't know if it's some guy in a van down by the river controlling the drone or somebody who has some very nefarious intentions.
So, how could drone security be improved, allowing hobbyists and kids who like to fly things to keep their toys, but preventing a security risk to the president and his family? There are a few theories. Former Secret Service director John Magaw told USA Today that possibilities could include increasing patrols around the White House or growing more trees around the grounds to block any clear view for potential drone operators. The strategy that seemed to be getting the most traction with aviation experts Monday was jamming radio frequencies, so that a remote pilot would lose access to his drone.
The FAA was scheduled to release new guidelines for commercial drones later this week, and in a bit of awkward timing, the agency on Friday granted new exemptions for expanded use of drones, or as it calls them "unmanned aircraft systems." The exemptions went to companies seeking to use drones for aerial photography and inspections, according to the FAA website.
With a drone accidentally getting this close to the White House, it's sobering to think what could happen if someone with intent tried to crash a small unmanned craft there. It's a good time to rethink the practical use of drones, and weigh them more closely with safety concerns.
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