SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association)- The Secret Service said it believes a hobbyist accidentally crashed a drone onto the White House grounds early Monday, an incident that prompted a lockdown and delivered a wake-up call over the potential terrorism threat of unmanned aircraft.
The person flying the 2-foot helicopter that crashed called the Secret Service after the incident was widely reported and has been cooperating with agents, the agency said. Authorities didn’t identify the person.
The Secret Service said the crash appears to have “occurred as a result of recreational use of the device,” but officials said the agency is still following up on other leads.
The president and first lady were in India at the time of the incident. The couple’s school-age daughters had remained behind in Washington, where they are usually cared for by Michelle Obama’s mother, who also lives in the White House.
The White House press secretary, speaking in India, said the device posed no ongoing threat.
A uniformed Secret Service officer heard the four-rotored, commercially available drone as it buzzed by at a low altitude shortly after 3 a.m., the agency said. It eventually crashed on the southeast side of the White House complex.
The Secret Service said it is working to identify where the drone came from. There was no camera attached to the device, a law-enforcement official said.
For security reasons, the federal government bans flying drones and model aircraft over Washington. A person knowingly violating that ban faces up to a year in prison.
The regulations say the government “may use deadly force” against an aircraft it determines to pose a security threat in Washington.
The Federal Aviation Administration logged a string of drone-related incidents in and around Washington last year, according to agency data. In July, the Secret Service detained a person who was operating a drone in a park just south of the White House. In August, police arrested a man in a plaza one block away from the White House after he climbed a tree to retrieve a drone that had crashed there. Ten days later, the U.S. Capitol Police detained a person who had been flying a drone on Capitol grounds.
Last year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested a Moroccan man living in Connecticut for allegedly plotting to use a drone to bomb a federal building in Connecticut and a university.
The Secret Service employs personnel who focus on airborne risks to the dignitaries it protects, including the president and his family. How to handle the potential threat from drones has become a vexing question for the Secret Service in recent years, according to a former law-enforcement official.
The Secret Service released a picture of the drone involved in Monday’s incident, which appears to be from the DJI Phantom series made by SZ DJI Technology Co. of Shenzhen, China. DJI Phantoms, among the most popular drones in the U.S., cost about $1,000. Many companies sell similar models.
Authorities are concerned about drones that are designed to spray hazardous chemicals or are strapped with small amount of explosives, according to government and industry officials.
Still, many small drones have limited battery life and can’t carry more than several pounds, limiting their threat, particularly to highly guarded government buildings, such as the White House, said robotics expert Missy Cummings, director of the Humans and Autonomy Lab at Duke University.
“But battery life will improve; capabilities will improve,” she said. “I think it could be a huge threat in the future, but right now it is a good wake-up call.”
There are several ways to combat unwanted drones, though all come with their own complications.
DroneShield LLC, based in Washington, sells systems that detect incoming drones using microphones and alert the system’s users. The company has installed about 200 systems world-wide over the past 18 months, including around prisons, government buildings and power plants, said Brian Hearing, the firm’s co-founder.
“False alarms are a big concern,” including alerts triggered by leaf blowers and weed whackers, Mr. Hearing said. And some customers are unsure about how to stop unwanted drones once they are detected, he said.
One option is to shoot the device down. Ballistics aren’t necessary, Ms. Cummings said. Authorities could use rubber bullets “or fire yarn into a rotor,” she said. “You just have to hit one rotor because they’re so vulnerable.” Some companies advertise guns that fire nets into the air as an antidrone measure.
The shooter would likely have to be skilled, though. Shooters with machine guns in the Arizona desert last year struggled at times to hit a drone.
Authorities could also deploy a more high-tech way to stop such a device: hacking its GPS signal or blocking the pilot’s control of the aircraft.
Authorities can take control of a drone that is flying using GPS data, as many consumer-grade devices do, said Todd Humphreys, a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. Mr. Humphreys and his students demonstrated this capability—called GPS spoofing—when they used a fake GPS signal to take control of an $80,000 drone during a 2012 test at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
A drone pilot can get around that threat by flying the drone manually, he said. In that case, authorities could jam the link between the controller and the aircraft, “but that would have uncontrolled consequences,” Mr. Humphreys said. “It would probably come down pretty soon and you couldn’t control it.”
Drones differ from model aircraft that have been commercially available for years because they include self-stabilizing technology that make them far easier to fly. “It’s not a new threat,” Ms. Cummings said. “They’re just more numerous now, and easier to get and easier to control.”
The FAA allows recreational drone flights in the U.S., as long as they comply with certain rules, such as flying below 400 feet, away from airports and outside restricted flight zones—such as the one above Washington. But those rules haven’t stopped all drone pilots in the nation’s capital. Some drone users have posted videos online of their illegal flights above the District of Columbia.
The FAA has effectively banned the commercial use of unmanned aircraft until it completes rules for the devices in the next several years. That policy has drawn flak from companies and drone entrepreneurs eager to use the devices for their businesses, from filmmaking to farming to construction. To ease that demand, the FAA has granted limited approval to 17 operators to use drones commercially.
The drone on Monday isn’t the first aircraft to arrive uninvited at the White House. In 1994, a man crashed a small Cessna on the South Lawn. The plane stopped just short of the part of the mansion that houses the first family.