Yesterday morning the White House went on lockdown after a small commercially-available ‘drone’ was spotted flying over White House grounds. It crash-landed on the lawn at about 3am.
The President and First Lady were in India but their daughters, Sasha and Malia, were at home.
After a brief lockdown and search of the White House grounds, Secret Service determined there was no threat posed by the small drone.
This and other recent drone-related events raises interesting new questions as the law attempts to keep up with technology.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or ‘drones’ as we now know them, are largely thought of in the context of high-flying missile-loaded assassins hovering high in the sky over areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. However smaller and (much less dangerous) drones, often equipped with cameras, are now commercially-available leading to a slew of both ridiculous and amazing Youtube videos.
But legally, who is allowed to fly these drones and where? A Youtube video showing footage recovered from a drone which crashed onto a Manhattan sidewalk begs this question. In the video, we can see the drone taking off from an upper-story Manhattan balcony and soaring through some of New York’s most iconic buildings, sometimes crashing into them and, in the end, falling to the busy street below. One pedestrian told local newscameras that it nearly hit him.
So who is allowed to fly these things? Do they need any sort of training or operator’s license? Where are they allowed to be flown – solely over unpopulated fields or over densely populated city centers? Are there any height restrictions?
As for the failed journey to the White House this morning – that was clearly unlawful. The FAA has an established three-mile area around the White House which is considered a permanent no-fly zone. It’s called the P56 zone. All pilots are warned to steer clear and are given emergency alerts if they come close to crossing the line. Clearly no such alert can be transmitted to an unmanned drone and its questionable whether the FAA can even detect when they approach the P56 zone.
Furthermore, following September 11, 2001 the FAA banned all private/amateur aviation within 10 miles of Reagan National Airport – meaning that drones are completely illegal if flown within the District of Columbia.
New York City and other areas
But what about our drone-flying friends in New York City who just wanted a unique view of the skyline? To start, FAA regulations state that drones may not fly higher than 400 feet – that’s about 40 stories. To put this in perspective, the Washington Monument is 555 feet tall, the National Cathedral is 301 feet tall and the Empire State Building is 1,250 feet tall.
Furthermore, the FAA classifies certain areas where drones and other small aircraft may not be flown at all, including within several miles of an airport and the entirety of New York City which is deemed a ‘Class B airspace’ due to its proximity to major airports. Remember the man who flew his drone around Manhattan until it crashed to the sidewalk below? The FAA fined him $2,000 for that flight.
Additionally the FAA advises that the operator must maintain direct sight of the drone at all times.
Lastly, anyone operating any sort of remote controlled ‘drone’ should be aware that the drone is still subject to state and local trespass and anti-peeping laws.
The rise in popularity of commercially-available drones is garnering attention from lawmakers all over the country. In the next few years we are sure to see a wave of new legislation relating to their use.