CNN reports that the Secret Service intercepted a flying drone on the White House grounds early on Monday morning, as the remote-controlled aircraft crashed onto the grounds. The incident occurred shortly after 3 A.M., and Secret Service spokesman Brian Leary confirmed that “an investigation is underway to determine the origin of this commercially available device, motive, and to identify suspects.”
It sounds like one of the expensive toys just about anyone can buy from retail outlets these days – high-tech upgrades to old-fashioned remote-control toy planes and helicopters with longer range and heavier payloads, arriving at a time when the weight of video and audio recording devices has dwindled away to virtually nothing.
Devices very similar to CNN’s description of the White House drone can be purchased for less than a thousand dollars; the Washington Examiner notes that one such quad-copter, complete with a built-in camera, was selling like hotcakes at just $61.96 on Amazon.com during the Christmas holidays.
CNN notes this is not the first time people have tried flying such aircraft in D.C.’s restricted airspace, with a similar incidents occurring in July and October (the October incident involved a drone flying over D.C.’s Bolling Air Force Base).
This might be the first time a drone has penetrated the White House grounds so closely, bringing a lively response from a Secret Service that has been under fire for security lapses. “Police, fire and other emergency vehicles swarmed the White House in the predawn hours, with several clustered near the southeast entrance to the mansion,” reports the Associated Press. “The White House was dark and the entire perimeter was on lockdown until around 5 a.m., when those who work in the complex were allowed inside. After daylight, more than a dozen Secret Service officers fanned out in a search across the White House lawn as snow began to fall.”
The subsequent posture of the Secret Service suggests they believe this was a relatively harmless incident of people tinkering with model aircraft, although they are evidently still interested in finding the individuals responsible. Depending on whether quad-copter sales include records of individual serial numbers purchased by identified buyers, that might be difficult to do… which would make such devices ideal for more sinister types interested in probing White House security and finding out how close an unmanned aerial vehicle can get before its controls are jammed or the craft is spotted.
USA Today points out that the Federal Aviation Administration is working on rules for commercial drone use and has granted “16 permits out of 295 applications for purposes such as movie-making and smokestack inspections.” It is a bit of a stretch to link the quad-copter incident to the debate over commercial drone technology with a headline like “Drone Crash At White House Comes As FAA Develops Rules,” since these aerial toys already have sensible, clear-cut operating rules the FAA probably is not going to change (and are flatly illegal in the D.C. area.) The question of how many real, relatively autonomous drones the FAA will permit in America’s skies, and how comfortable the public will be with a sky full of highly useful robots, is still open.