The drone that crashed on the lawn of the White House reveals less about unmanned aircraft systems than it does about the people using them.
The government employee operating the drone was evidently taking it on a 3 a.m. joy ride when it crashed on the impeccably manicured South Lawn. During questioning Monday he told the Secret Service it was an accident—which, given the circumstances, make sense.
Small unmanned aircraft, like the one in question, were big business this Christmas. This landed the device on many a gift guide and, presumably, under more than a couple trees. Missing from these gifts, or the purchase of the drones in general, is a safe, regulatory market that tells users not only where they can fly the aircraft, but how.
So while the tiny drone may not have posed any real danger to American safety, a continued lack of organization surrounding this newly popular commodity just might.
Congress first addressed the growing need to regulate unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in 2012, directing the FAA to come up with a plan for the “safe integration” of drones into the national airspace by September 30, 2015. But the regulatory framework for integrating UAS into the national air space (NAS) will only fix one part of the problem: drones flown above 400 feet.
Those flown under 400 feet, such as the White House drone, or the one that crashed carrying six pounds of meth near the Mexican border, fall outside the FAA’s jurisdiction. This air belongs to whoever is directly below it, like a homeowner or a state municipality, unless the state or district overrides.
In a section titled Busting Myths about the FAA and Unmanned Aircraft, the administration seeks to defend itself against arguments that unmanned aircraft fall under legal grey area. “There are no shades of gray in FAA regulations. Anyone who wants to fly an aircraft—manned or unmanned—in U.S. airspace needs some level of FAA approval,” the report reads. This defense only holds up for UAS flown about 400 feet, meaning that unmanned aircraft below that level don’t necessarily need FAA approval to fly, or really any approval at all.
But while the idea that the FAA isn’t regulating them at this height may be a bit worrying, it isn’t necessarily the problem. UAS are extremely small and lightweight, two necessities in order for them to sail through the ail so easily. Their presence in the sky alone isn’t dangerous, but a pilot who doesn’t know how to operate it could be.
Matthew Schroyer, founder of DroneJournalism.org and an instructional technologist, says the White House drone is a good time to look at what’s wrong with our current UAS policies—but insists one can do so rationally. “I think it’s important to downplay the sensationalism of saying ‘What if a terrorist did this instead?” he tells me. “It was just a hobbyist that made a mistake.”
Still, he admits that the legal framework surrounding UAS is “messy,” which he attributes to a “breakdown in communication” both on the FAA side and the manufacturers’.
“This is a lesson we can learn about what’s the right way to allow consumers to have access to this stuff. There are important questions we need to ask: ‘Was this person aware? What’s the manufacturers responsibility to educate the operator about the hazards of flight? I think more responsibility needs to be taken up on the side of manufacturers and the FAA to be more accurate in communicating these concerns to the public.”
But while Schroyer says some media outlets are taking the narrative too far (like CNN, which created an entire 3-D graphic of the drone in question), it raises interesting questions about drones as commodities. “I think there’s lessons we can learn about the right way to allow consumers to have access to this stuff.”
If the FAA isn’t getting their act together, Congress isn’t aware of it.
The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held a hearing on January 21 titled Drone Research and Development. Talking over the hum of a drone flying around the committee room, 3D Robotics senior VP Colin Gunn argued that regulations are already in place. "We had to get permission to fly a drone in the committee room as well," said Chairman Lamar Smith. "So the rules are still pretty strict."
While the FAA is set to announce the new regulations in September 2015, some have expressed concern that the decision be expedited. Regardless, Americans are in no more danger today than they were yesterday. Recreational drones, while in a messy legal and regulatory framework, aren’t technologically advanced enough to be capable of mass violence.
It’s this that Schroyer fears will be the negative outcome of the news story—convincing Americans that a small drone like that one can turn into terrorist weapons over night. “I think it’s really important to step back and realize all the things that someone would have to go through to weaponize a radio controlled drone that weighs less than 5 kg,” he says. “The actual payload capacity of that is 2.6 pounds. That’s about the weight of a squirrel.”