President Obama is calling for more regulations on the growing number of drones in U.S. skies, but industry leaders say it’s doubtful more rules would’ve prevented a small unmanned craft from crashing onto the White House lawn earlier this week.
Indeed, Washington, D.C., and the areas around the White House in particular, are among the most heavily protected in the world, and the operator of the quadcopter in Monday’s incident — now confirmed to be an off-duty federal employee — clearly violated existing aviation guidelines.
Furthermore, the federal government has for years been in the process of designing new regulations to govern the flight of small drones, but Mr. Obama’s own Federal Aviation Administration has fallen woefully behind a congressionally mandated schedule, and final rules aren’t expected until perhaps 2017.
Despite that, the president clearly believes more government regulation is the solution.
“We don’t really have any kind of regulatory structure at all for it,” he told CNN on Tuesday. “We don’t yet have the legal structures and the architecture, both globally and within individual countries, the way that we need to.”
He added that he has directed federal agencies to develop rules to make sure drones operate safely and do not violate Americans’ privacy.
But private industry and recreational groups, in contrast to the painfully slow wheels of the federal government, have a host of ideas of how to prevent situations like the one that unfolded Monday at the White House. They also seem to be able to respond much more quickly when problems arise.
Less than 48 hours after Monday’s incident, China-based drone manufacturer DJI Technology Co., which made the craft that crashed at the White House, said it is rolling out a “mandatory firmware update” for its products that will automatically stop operators from piloting their craft in Washington or taking off within the District limits.
The firmware update also will prevent flights across the U.S. border.
“With the unmanned aerial systems community growing on a daily basis, we feel it is important to provide pilots additional tools to help them fly safely and responsibly,” said DJI spokesman Michael Perry. “We will continue cooperating with regulators and lawmakers to ensure the skies stay safe and open for innovation.”
Other industry groups contend that safety training and similar efforts are better ways to respond to irresponsible drone use versus more government regulation.
The Academy of Model Aeronautics and other aviation organizations have partnered with the FAA for the “Know Before You Fly” campaign, which aims to teach drone users on what they can and can’t do. The initiative is, among other things, pushing for more informational materials to accompany each drone purchase.
“More regulation isn’t the answer all aircraft operations are currently prohibited in the vicinity of the White House,” AMA President Bob Brown said in a statement. “Community-based programming is the key to safe and responsible flying.”
Other private companies are pushing cutting-edge products that may have helped prevent Monday’s unexpected drone crash.
Brian Hearing, the co-founder of Drone Shield, said his company’s products would’ve alerted Secret Service personnel about the craft, which apparently evaded White House radar systems.
“Obviously the radar didn’t detect it. We would’ve given them a heads-up something was coming in and which direction it was coming from,” he said Wednesday. “They were really lucky this thing crashed into a tree. It really could have hit the house if this had been something with ill intent, it probably wouldn’t have ended well.”
Meanwhile, officials insist that the White House grounds are safe. Mr. Obama and first lady Michelle Obama were in India at the time of the incident, and the craft seems to have posed no real danger to the White House complex.
“The safety and security of the White House grounds is one of the missions of the United States Secret Service. We have full confidence in them to accomplish that,” White House principal deputy press secretary Eric Schultz told reporters.
The administration also has had to contend with the embarrassing fact that the ordeal was caused by a federal employee. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency confirmed Tuesday that one of its employees, who has not been named, is to blame.
“Even though the employee was using a personal item while off duty, the agency takes the incident very seriously and remains committed to promoting public trust and transparency,” the agency said in a statement.