A drone crashed today at the White House, prompting more attention and scrutiny of the budding world of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as well as the continued criticism of the U.S. Secret Service. The incident occurred at about 3:00AM on Monday morning and the Secret Service discovered the drone later that morning, after it had crashed into a tree on the South Lawn. The Secret Service released a photo of the downed drone (a DJI Phantom quadcopter), which seems to have taken pretty substantial damage:
The Secret Service said that an officer nearby had noticed the drone around 3:08AM. Later that morning, the individual flying the quadcopter in this highly protected area apparently self-reported his actions to the Secret Service (probably because it was all over the news!). All reports show that this was a pure recreational flight, but the incident highlights how small UAVs can pose security concerns in even highly protected areas, and are forcing security officials to imagine new scenarios.
When we first heard about the incident, we thought it was probably a DJI Phantom quadcopter. Given the model’s popularity, its the most likely option. For those of you not familiar with the model, the Phantom is a mid-sized quadcopter (about a foot and a half wide and three pounds weight) that is designed to shoot high definition video or take aerial photos with an attached GoPro camera, or an integrated HD video camera on the more advanced models. The DJI Phantom has become immensely popular in the last two years or so since its launch, as it was one of the first models to offer an easy, ready-to-fly solution at an affordable price point. It has a pretty good reputation overall, though occasionally there are reports of “fly-aways”, where the drone simply changes direction, doesn’t respond to the controller input, and speeds away.
In this case, its not exactly clear what happened. It could have been that the operator was far away from the White House, and the drone just made its way over there on its own. More likely, the individual was probably in the general vicinity flying and then lost control due to wind or operator error, causing the aircraft to breach the White House perimeter and crash. However, there’s a chance that the operator intentionally flew the quadcopter into the protected area, just to test the limits of the security services, or just for fun.
Whatever happened, it was a terrible lack of judgement on the part of the operator and clearly in violation of local and Federal laws. The area around the White House is a P-56 Zone (Prohibited Area 56), a roughly three mile zone in which all flights are prohibited except for those supporting the Secret Service, the President, or a small set of select agencies that support the President’s air support. In addition, the 15 miles surround Reagan Washington National Airport are a Flight Restricted Zone (FRZ), which means that the only non-governmental flights allowed in the area are the commercial flights into and out of Reagan.
It also casts a pretty negative light on the quadcopter and drone enthusiast community – now many people will assume that operators of quadcopters are reckless and don’t mind breaking or bending the rules, when that isn’t the case. Hopefully, this will be an opportunity to learn more about the capabilities of quadcopters and their potential, rather than to respond with draconian regulations that likely couldn’t prevent an incident like this from happening anyways. The incident does reinforce the need to fly smart – never in protected flight zones, never in a reckless manner or in dense urban areas without prior authorization, and always within your skill range and with proper focus and attention.
For those of you looking to learn more about quadcopter, please check out our site for more info – we have recommendations for the Best Quadcopters, many reviews of popular quadcopter models, and up to date news on the quadcopter and drone markets. Happy and safe flying, and just remember, don’t fly near the White House!
UPDATE: DJI has now released a new firmware for the Phantom lineup that will prohibit the models from flying in the Washington, DC area Flight Restricted Zone – essentially anywhere within 15.5 miles from the White House, which covers most of the DC metropolitan area. Read more about it here: http://www.dji.com/info/news/phantom-2-firmware-update-new-no-fly-zone-and-other-improvements
Roundup of other White House Drone Crash stories: