Drone flights near White House test local restrictions

Enthusiasm and interest in flying tech often outpace knowledge of the law

drone with gopro digital camera mounted underneath   22 april 2013
Don McCullough (CC BY 2.0)

The quadcopter drone that crashed on the White House lawn early Monday was a recreation drone, among the same type that are flown on the National Mall across the street from the president's home.

Adam Eidinger, a done hobbyist who lives in Washington and is a local activist, has seen people flying drones on the National Mall and in some of the District of Columbia's parks. Eidinger has warned some of these recreational users that it's against federal law to fly a drone in D.C., but his admonitions are often met with disbelief.

Even though the D.C. area is covered by Fight Restrict Zone that covers an area of about 13 to 15 nautical miles -- about 15 to 17 statute miles -- you can find numerous videos on YouTube of people flying drones on the National Mall, said Christopher Vo, one of the co-founders of the local DC Area Drone User Group.

"It's surprising how much flying is going on there, and it's totally not a good idea," said Vo.

Eidinger knows the law from experience. In 2012 he flew a drone in the Adams Morgan section of the District. It had mechanical problems and crashed on a building roof. He posted signs in the neighborhood offering a reward for his missing drone, and got some media calls about his signs.

He also heard from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which warned Eidinger he could be prosecuted. (Eidinger said was unaware of the airspace restrictions and agreed never to fly again in a restricted space.)

The man believed to have flown the quadcopter that landed near the White House voluntarily contacted the Secret Service and told officials it was for recreational use, the Washington Post reported.

The drone landing shouldn't come as a surprise. The DC drone User Group has over 1,600 members, and likely represents a small fraction of the people buying or building drones in the area, said Vo, who is the chief scientist at Sentien Robotics, which develops Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) systems

"Lately, we have not had any flying events," Vo said. "Specifically, we're a little bit worried about some of the airspace issues, especially in the DC area."

But the law doesn't seem to be hurting interest in drone use. Members of the group range from "makers," people who are building their own drones, as well as hobbyists and a community of entrepreneurs trying to use the vehicles for commercial purposes such as photography, said Vo.

A consumer-grade drone may be controllable to about 1.2 miles, well beyond what someone can see with their naked eye, and can be launched from a building, a rooftop or carried in a backpack. Flight times range from 12 to 30 minutes, with a speed of around 35-40 miles per hour, said Vo.

Eidinger believes the D.C. drone laws are too restrictive, and said people should be allowed to fly them on their property up to a limited height.

While drones get attention because of the potential for nefarious uses, Eidinger doesn't see them as particularly threatening compared to other risks.

Drones are small and portable, and "I don't think there is anything the government can do to stop it, short of searching everybody and invading everyone's privacy," said Eidinger.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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