Update: Here’s a look at the drone, from the Washington Post. The operator was apparently flying at Lafayette Park, just north of the White House.
The Associated Press reported this afternoon that the Secret Service arrested a man who was “trying to launch a drone outside the White House fence.” CNN reported a slightly looser version: “trying to fly some sort of remote-controlled aerial device.” President Obama wasn’t in the White House; he’s at Camp David. The White House was briefly on lockdown, but it’s since been lifted. And as of now, it’s still unclear whether the man was flying just to take some cool aerial photos, or for another purpose.
Right now the details are admittedly about as murky as a glass of water from the Potomac, and we want to avoid warrantless speculation and sensationalism above all else, but there are in fact several interesting things to note should the device in question be an actual personal drone. We’ll update this blog entry as the story develops, but in any case, here’s the bottom line: As drones get more popular and more people begin using them, many of them won’t have the knowledge — and perhaps consideration somehow correlates here — that dedicated hobbyists might have. It’s becoming more and more incumbent upon all of us to advocate for — and set examples of — responsible personal use. If you’d like to discuss, I’ve opened comments below.
1) The FAA. Ironically, the day before the incident the FAA launched a public outreach campaign called “No Drone Zone” to make sure everyone is aware that the FAA has declared Washington DC (“all airspace within 15 miles of Reagan National Airport”) off-limits for all drone flights, commercial or recreational. The timing of the FAA’s PSA was an unfortunate coincidence — more situational irony than anything else — but it does raise the question of how best to raise awareness.
2) Don’t fence me in. After White House Down 1 back in February, DJI — maker of the breaching drone — announced it pushed out a software update that put geofencing on all of the company’s drones, disabling them from flying in DC airspace. Was today’s violation also by a DJI drone? If so, it’s a comment on how easy it is to get around geofencing — and we might have to come to terms with the fact that you can’t regulate drones, neither via policy nor via technology — in the face of a determined user. The technology’s already out there. If it’s not a DJI drone — if, say, it’s a DIY job — then it’s a similar story: how easy it is to access and use this technology. Pandora either way. I’d say we have to focus on consumer education, but the FAA just shot that argument right in the foot. More of us — 3DR included — should be more vocal advocates of responsible flight.
3) I said don’t fence me in. So how does the White House respond now? After the first drone breach, the Secret Service conducted a series of clandestine late-night drone exercises to better prepare its response to a similar scenario. Depending on your view, those were either ineffective or successful — they did nab today’s pilot pretty quickly. But the White House has had several security breaches in the past year. The most alarming didn’t involve a drone, but rather a man who jumped the fence and made it inside the White House with a knife. In response, the Secret Service installed a pointier fence. Will it now install a pointier geofence? How sharp could those points be — meaning, how could they specifically disable signals that drones use without also affecting all other manner of equipment in the area? Is there a viable technological solution here, like there is to a human made of flesh and bone and faced with physical limitations? If there is such a solution, would it also be ethical? Feel free to discuss in the comments below…
More to come.