The crash of a drone into the White House lawn Monday morning shows the need for improved policy and education about the use of the devices, experts said.
“It’s a good example of where technology is far outstripping regulation and common sense,” said Keven Gambold, CEO of Unmanned Experts, a company that does training and support for unmanned aerial vehicles.
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting congressional representative, said the incident shows the need for greater clarity in regulations.
“The Secret Service cannot handle the threat of drones without further Federal Aviation Administration regulations that update the interpretation of the no-fly zone to include such unmanned aircraft,” Mrs. Holmes, a Democrat, said.
The complex of buildings around the White House includes a surface-to-air missile battery designed for a Sept. 11-type scenario — taking down large planes that could try to attack or ram into the executive mansion.
But drones pose a different challenge. According to the Secret Service, the one that crashed on the lawn at Monday morning was a “quadcopter,” a two-foot wide commercially available drone that can retail on Amazon for as little as $60.
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According to Secret Service spokesman Brian Leary, one of the agency’s uniformed officers heard the drone at about 3 a.m., then called for a security lockdown upon seeing it crash onto the southern lawn.
An individual later voluntarily came forward to report they had been piloting the craft. After interviewing the person, the Secret Service released a statement saying the crash appeared to be an accident “as a result of recreational use of the device.”
But though experts said the incident seemed to be handled appropriately, the increasing presence of small, easily obtainable drones, could very well mean a similar event — and perhaps with a not-so-innocent operator and/or not-so-innocuous cargo — could happen again.
Ronald Kessler, an investigative journalist and expert on the White House, wrote in Time that the Secret Service is developing a device that could shut down drones with electromagnetic waves — not just to protect the president’s mansion but also the president when he is out in public giving speeches.
“In contrast to its repeated security lapses, the Secret Service actually has already recognized drones as a possible threat,” Mr. Kessler said.
Mr. Gambold, a former Royal Air Force pilot, said that, despite thousands of people operating drones properly, there need to be clearer rules and regulations about where you can and can’t fly.
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“You just can’t fathom the stupidity of some of these individuals out there,” he said. “They don’t understand airspace, restricted privacy issues, all of these pieces There’s always one idiot out there who will try to take pictures of the first family in the White House.”
Jennifer Mummart, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service, said aircraft are prohibited from flying lower than 18,000 feet over the National Mall, the White House and much of downtown D.C. Likewise, the use of drones is banned in national parks nationwide as of June 2014.
Mr. Gambold noted there were several instances last year of people losing control of the drones while in the parks.
Meanwhile, the policies about the use of kites and model rockets varies by park, Ms. Mummart said.
As the sport of UAV flying has “taken off, literally and figuratively,” Mr. Gambold said there are two key elements to ensuring their safe usage: “You need education and you need enforcement.”
Mr. Gambold said Unmanned Experts has been trying to tackle the education end, including classes for civilians on drone operation and etiquette. But the enforcement end must be up to law agencies — just like enforcement for any other illegal activity.
“The first Australian has been fined by their aviation authority,” Mr. Gambold noted, adding that police saw YouTube footage the drone controller had uploaded of flying over restricted areas.
“They tracked him down and fined him about a thousand dollars,” Mr. Gambold said, adding that such measures would likely serve as an example to other drone enthusiasts to follow the rules.
• Phillip Swarts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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