Drone found on White House grounds re-opens debate about regulations and security

Posted at 1:32 PM, Jan 26, 2015
and last updated 2015-01-27 11:00:11-05

The White House received an unlikely visitor early Monday – in the form of a drone.

Secret Service agents found a 2-foot-quad-copter drone on White House grounds and, although it ultimately was cleared as not a threat, there were concerns at first that it could be carrying explosives. A spokeswoman for the Secret Service would not say whether there are special protections against drones, The New York Times reported.

Early Monday afternoon, The Times also reported that the drone was operated by a government employee. The employee, who is not on the White House staff, told the Secret Service he lost control of the drone when he was flying it for recreation at 3 a.m. 

Flying any object over the White House grounds is prohibited, as is throwing anything onto the grounds or jumping over the fence.

After the 9/11 attacks, the Federal Aviation Association declared the airspace over Washington, D.C., a flight-restricted zone. Although the rules about small drone use around the president’s home are clear, rules governing the technology elsewhere in the United States remains murky.

Back in 2012 Congress ordered the FAA to integrate drones into the airspace for commercial use by the end of 2014, which opened up a floodgate of preemptive state and local government bills meant to limit the use of drones because of security concerns. The FAA ultimately failed to meet its deadline.

Although an official ruling has yet to be passed, in the interim the FAA has issued some pretty strict guidelines that limit almost all commercial drone use. Only 16 permits have been granted out of 295 applications — one to make movies in Hollywood. Drone use for recreational purposes is allowed as long as the drone files lower than 400 feet.  

But even those limitations have been challenged. A case in March of last year challenged the FAA’s right to regulate domestic drones when it hadn’t actually issued formal regulations. The FAA lost the case, and many drone or “unmanned aerial vehicle” owners took it to mean they were free to use the systems as they want until the final FAA regulations are released.

The House Science, Space and Technology Committee conducted a hearing last week that explored the technological advancements and research developments in the drone industry. Members also discussed how to best integrate drones into the national airspace. A drone was even flown at the hearing as a demonstration. 

The FAA is scheduled to release new regulations any day now that would allow the use of small commercial drones weighting up to 55 pounds. Some believe the final rules may include requiring a pilot’s license for commercial use and keeping the drone within sight of the operator.

[Also by Miranda Green: Are journalism and satire the same thing?]

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