- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Editor’s note: This corrected version reflects a comment by Mr. Drobac that originally was attributed to another source.

The Secret Service isn’t disclosing details of its plans to use drones in the skies over Washington, but industry specialists say it’s a logical security move that also carries potential privacy risks.

The agency issued an advisory Tuesday that it plans to carry out “a series of exercises involving unmanned aircraft systems” in the coming weeks in restricted airspace around the White House and other sensitive targets. The move comes after an inebriated government employee crashed a drone on the White House grounds last month, causing no harm but plenty of alarm.

SEE ALSO: Obama calls for rules on federal drones to prevent spying on citizens

The agency won’t discuss the operational details or even the budgetary authority for the exercises. But people with specialized knowledge of small drones say the Secret Service is likely testing the capability of drones for monitoring and surveillance, and possibly looking at counter-measures against unauthorized unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).

“They want to use it in restricted airspace because that’s where they want to use it for actual operations,” said Michael Drobac, executive director of the Small UAV Coalition. “The beauty of their exercise is they get to do real-world outdoor operations that will promote safety for the White House, for monuments and for the general public.”

President Obama issued a directive earlier this month governing how federal agencies will use drones of all sizes. It requires agencies to publish within one year their guidelines on gathering and keeping information from drones, and the president said his goal is to ensure that the government doesn’t violate individuals’ privacy or discriminate against them.

SEE ALSO: White House releases long-awaited rules to govern drones

Mr. Drobac said deploying the technology carries the risk that an agency could misuse it for unintended purposes.

“If the Secret Service uses it inappropriately, I’d be the first to say they have to stop that,” he said. “They’re going to have to disclose what they intend to do at some point, because that’s exactly what it says in the executive order. Agencies have to be transparent.”

But he added, “Beyond using it for ways that are invasive to consumer privacy, which they should not do, if they are using it to protect grounds in Washington D.C. that are restricted, I’m for it.”

Analysts say conducting the exercises in restricted airspace also indicates the Secret Service has been working with a private firm or firms and is fairly close to deploying drones regularly.

“They’re testing it in the field, as opposed to just testing it at a research station,” said Brendan Schulman, who heads the unmanned aircraft systems practice at the New York law firm of Kramer Levin. “That might suggest that they are closer to an actual functional defense mechanism than the public might think.”

Mr. Schulman theorized that the Secret Service also might be testing “different kinds of detection mechanisms” such as radar and sound monitoring systems that are able to spot drones.

While small drones will be highly useful to detect potential threats, experts say it’s unlikely the unmanned vehicles could be used to intercept unauthorized drones in mid-air.

“I don’t think we’re talking about a battle of drones in the skies,” Mr. Drobac said. “This isn’t ‘Battlestar Gallactica’ gone drone. I think this is simply an ability to monitor. I’m confident they’re not intending to use weaponized drones.”

The Secret Service’s advisory said it will conduct the exercises in “normally flight restricted areas.” It did not say when or where the exercises will occur.

The crash of the small “quadcopter” last month at the White House highlighted a security gap for the agency in trying to identify and disable such aircraft. Experts say it’s possible to jam radio signals to the vehicles and stop them.

Unmanned aircraft are increasingly interfering with commercial passenger planes near major airports. The FAA this month also issued proposed guidelines for small commercial drones, allow the unmanned aircraft weighing up to 55 pounds to fly within sight of their remote pilots during daylight hours.

The FAA’s proposed rules said drones must stay below 500 feet in the air and fly slower than 100 mph. Operators would need to be at least 17 years old and pass a test.

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