Drones crash onto White House agenda

Drones crash onto White House agenda
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The crash of a small drone onto the White House grounds is injecting new urgency into the effort to write regulations for the machines, potentially prompting the release of a long-awaited executive order from President Obama.

While drone advocates are fearful that federal officials might overreact to the breach in White House security, they are hopeful that the surge of public attention could speed up the process of integrating drones into everyday life.

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“Clearly it is having that effect,” Brian Wynne, the head of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, told The Hill. “The rules are really critical for clarity, predominantly for commercial uses.”

While most recreational uses of drones are legal and most commercial uses are banned, there are a number of loopholes in the system that federal regulators are seeking to close.

In coming days, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is expected to take steps to help clear up the situation, releasing draft regulations allowing business to fly small drones weighing less than 55 pounds. Those regulations — which have been in the works for years — are scheduled for release by Friday, though they could well be delayed.

The FAA declined to comment on when the rules would be issued.

Drone industry advocates say the rules would pave the way for farmers, energy companies, news outlets and others to make drones part of their equipment.

In an interview with CNN this week, Obama seemed to push regulators to get a move on.

“There are incredibly useful functions that these drones can play in terms of farmers who are managing crops and conservationists who want to take stock of wildlife.” he said. “But we don’t really have any kind of regulatory structure at all for it.”

Observers viewed Obama’s remarks as a clear signal that he wants the FAA to act.

“When the president of the United States goes on CNN to tell an executive branch agency to do something, it’s reasonable to assume that something will be done,” said Michael Senkowski, a lawyer who leads Wiley Rein’s group on drones, formally known as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

The FAA’s rules would take years to implement but would be the first step in opening up the nation’s skies to the 7,500 drones that could be buzzing overhead in the next three years. Currently, the agency forbids anyone using a drone for a commercial purpose, with a handful of tightly controlled exceptions.

Some industry advocate fear the new rules could go too far.

The FAA’s proposal, for instance, is expected to apply the same rules for all drones under 55 pounds and require drone pilots to obtain the same license as pilots of manned planes.

Brendan Schulman, the head of the Kramer Levin law firm’s UAS practice, said that plan “just doesn’t make sense, because spending a couple dozen hours is a Cessna in order to learn how to fly that aircraft from the cockpit doesn’t have anything to do with operating a UAS.” Schulman has filed a petition with the FAA to issue a different set of rules for drones that weigh less than 3 pounds.

While the crash at the White House might put extra pressure on regulators, their rules wouldn’t have stopped the 3 a.m. crash, which was apparently caused by a drunk, off-duty intelligence agency official who lost control of his drone.

Recreational use of small drones is generally permitted across most of the nation, but existing FAA restrictions already ban drone flights — as well as toy rockets, model airplanes and other flying machines — in the area surrounding Washington, D.C.

The White House has said the crash never posed a threat to the building or the president, who was visiting India at the time.

But it certainly did not help the image of the drone industry in its long struggle to differentiate tabletop flying machines with the multi-ton drones the government uses for espionage and military attacks around the world.

Public concerns about potential privacy violations could speed up an expected executive order from Obama to have the National Telecommunications and Information Administration lead a process to come up with privacy guidelines for small drone operators. The order has reportedly been in the works for months.

Many industry backers say the crash shouldn’t cause the government to do anything too drastic.

“It would be like if someone had thrown a football over the fence at the White House, would somebody impose additional regulations over the National Football League?” said Schulman, the Kramer Levin lawyer.

Still, the Secret Service has to be concerned that that a hobbyist managed to fly an off-the-shelf toy onto one of the nation’s most protected plots of land.

“To my mind, it doesn’t much matter if it’s a drone or a blimp or a bear stuffed with whatever — it’s how did that happen on the White House lawn?” said Wells Bennett, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “To me it might be more of a security story than a drone regulation story.”