One…tiny…drone, and the capital of the most powerful nation in modern history freaks out, yet again.
In case you missed the news, on Thursday May 14, Secret Service agents detained a man flying a Parrot Bebop drone, an 11-inch, 400-gram quadcopter, in a park near the White House. The Washington Post reported that officials closed roads around the White House while the incident was being investigated.
Coincidentally, and we’re not the first to point this out, the day before this incident, the FAA issued a press release announcing a public outreach effort to explain to everyone who might be thinking of flying a drone in Washington, D.C., that the area is a “No Drone Zone.” In fact, the FAA pointed out that airspace in a 15-mile radius of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport is a flight restricted zone in which no aircraft can operate without permission. Because the FAA defines anything that flies as an aircraft, and this has been supported by an NTSB judge’s decision, the FAA wants “to ensure that residents and tourists all understand that operating an unmanned aircraft in this area for any purpose is against the law.” That includes paper airplanes and those cool little Guillow’s balsa-wood gliders, by the way, because these by FAA definition also count as aircraft.
Unfortunately, it appears that there is no actual law that the FAA can throw at a violator of this airspace who isn’t a certified pilot (you can’t yank the certificate from someone who doesn’t hold a certificate); in this case the drone operator may get off with a simple citation. He is probably lucky that the Secret Service or Park Police didn’t decide to put him in jail.
But really, can we calm down a bit and consider this incident with a little logic and less emotion? The way that government officials and the public react to a tiny drone is way out of proportion to any actual harm that could possibly happen.
As aviators, we’re taught to assess hazards and figure out how to mitigate risks to complete flights safely. Is there truly a risk to flying a Parrot Bebop inside the flight restricted zone?
The officials in charge of all this stuff are still locked into a post-9/11 emotional security mode that allows for little, if any, compromise. Aircraft were used in a devastating attack, hence all aircraft are bad, and they can fly near Washington, D.C., only under heavy restrictions. That has been the attitude from government officials for the past 14 years and it is unlikely to change. This attitude infects many aspects of aviation. The flight restricted zone was shoved down the throats of local aviators, despite the fact that no one from the government could provide the scantest evidence of the need for or the effectiveness of the zone. The same is true of the temporary flight restrictions that follow presidents and vice presidents as they travel around the U.S. These TFRs may feel good to Secret Service agents and other officials, but like the zone around D.C. and other TFRs (Disneyland/world anyone?), the ability of these efforts to stop a real bad guy is fundamentally and inescapably tiny if not nonexistent. All these TFRs and restrictions like the No Drone Zone do is capture honest citizens who are not trying to do any harm.
Of course I’m not suggesting that we all fly drones inside the flight restricted zone; that would be stupid. And obviously there are areas where drones and model aircraft simply should not be flown, such as on final approach to an airport. What I am suggesting is that if the government wants us—the public, that is—to be good little boys and girls and not fly our drones where they shouldn’t be flown, give us some reasonable rules, not these blanket bans that simply make no sense.