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White House Drone Raises Questions About D.C., Capitol Policy

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy brought a drone to a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in March. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy brought a drone to a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in March. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

A small drone found on the White House lawn caused some lawmakers to question the Federal Aviation Administration’s drone policy in the District of Columbia Monday.  

“The Secret Service cannot handle the threat of drones without further Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations that update the interpretation of the no-fly zone to include such unmanned aircraft,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said in a statement Monday. In 2010 regulations, the FAA does list “unmanned aircraft systems” (UAS) among operations prohibited in the District’s no-fly zone, also known as the “Flight Restricted Zone.” Drones, or “unmanned aircrafts” are also prohibited from the Capitol campus, according to U.S. Capitol Police traffic regulations.  

Norton pointed to a drone incident at the Capitol over the summer as contributing to her concerns. The Capitol Police do not have a public report on the incident, but multiple media reports cited FAA records stating the Capitol Police detained an individual in August who was operating a drone on the Capitol grounds. The FAA did not respond to a request for comment.  

Though drones are not permitted at the Capitol, a drone was spotted in a congressional hearing last week. During a House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing on UAS research and development, Colin Guinn of 3D Robotics demonstrated the Parrot Bebop Drone with a short flight around the room. The drone was a “quad copter,” which is the same type of drone that landed on the White House lawn Monday.  

“We’re going to have a demonstration in a minute that to my knowledge will be the first such demonstration in this committee room,” Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said at the start of the hearing. “We had to get permission to fly a drone in the committee room as well. The rules are pretty strict.”  

A committee aide wrote in an email Monday that the committee asked the House sergeant-at-arms for permission to fly the drone. The drone was inspected and escorted to and from the hearing.  

Though the hearing last week focused on integrating drones into the National Airspace System, the incident at the White House raised concerns about unmanned aircrafts’ security risks.  

“With the discovery of an unauthorized drone on the White House lawn, the eagle has crash-landed in Washington; there is no stronger sign that clear FAA guidelines for drones are needed,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement. “Drones are an important new technology … but rules to protect the safety and privacy of the American people must keep pace, and I am calling on the FAA and OMB to get these long-delayed regulations on the books.”  

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