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Next Drone Incursion: Reasons to Buzz Capitol Hill

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy arrives at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing with a Draganflyer X6 drone last March. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy arrives at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing with a Draganflyer X6 drone last March. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

You have to read to the 128th page of the 131-page rulebook governing the public’s movements and behavior on Capitol Hill. But there it is in Section 16.2.90, tucked between admonitions against flying a kite or taking a nap in the shadow of the Dome.  

“The use of model rockets, remote or manually controlled model gliders, model airplanes or unmanned aircrafts, model boats and model cars is prohibited on Capitol grounds.”  

More simply put: No flying drones allowed. You may be fined $300 and jailed for 90 days. But banning a behavior is one thing, of course, and preventing it is something altogether different. Which is why nothing in “Amended Traffic Regulations for the United States Capitol Grounds” creates any confidence the Capitol Police would do better than the Secret Service in detecting and stopping the sort of buzzing little flying machine that crashed on the South Lawn of the White House in the wee hours of Monday morning.  

That craft, apparently operated by an inebriated hobbyist, was small enough and flying low enough to elude the special radar system designed to alert the White House to an incoming plane or missile. But there’s no similar early warning system specifically for the Hill, which must rely on whatever alarms are sounded by the Federal Aviation Administration when there’s a violation of the restricted airspace over the heart of official Washington. (The FAA also prohibits drones throughout that “no fly zone.”)  

Drones are among the most important technological innovations transforming the war against terrorism. Incidents such as the one at the White House are a stark reminder of how easy it could be for the bad guys to turn the tables, arming the machines with lightweight explosives or chemical agents and launching sneaky pinpoint attacks.  

But people in power in the capital, members of Congress as much as administration officials, have reason to feel vulnerable to something other than a weaponized attack. Drones with off-the-shelf electronics in their payload could undertake missions many politicians would find almost as nefarious, even if nowhere near as dangerous.  

A firm on K Street might purchase some 9-pound octocopters (with eight arms and propellers), equip them with video cameras and fly them past the windows of congressional office buildings to discover who’s in the meetings from which their lobbyists are excluded. An environmental group could harness wireless loudspeakers to an “unmanned aerial vehicle” maybe 2 feet in diameter and broadcast “Save the caribou!” over the heads of House members headed for floor votes on a warm day. A campaign’s operation research tracker could clip a smartphone to a 5-pound quadcopter and trail a senator to an unexpected late night rendezvous. Or a reporter could buy one of the things at a consumer electronics store for less than $100, then trick it out to be an eye in the sky for staking out the Capitol Hill Club on a particularly busy night of fundraisers.  

None of that intrusive reconnaissance has yet been observed, but such scenarios appear much easier to imagine than to prevent. No one has ever been arrested for violating the Hill’s drone ban, and last August was the only time anyone was even detained after operating an unmanned aerial vehicle on the grounds. (The FAA says that was one of at least six incidents in the second half of 2014 involving drones using D.C.’s restricted airspace.)  

And it’s highly unlikely that, except in the most imminently threatening situation, the Capitol Police rules of engagement would permit opening fire to bring down a machine that’s not much bigger than one of the ravens that cruise the campus — especially if clusters of tourists, aides and members were obliviously walking underneath.  

Less ominously, a consortium of 10 media organizations formed this month to explore the use of drones for journalism, so it’s easy to envision the TV networks wanting to film a dramatic bird’s-eye swoop over the Capitol rooftops to accompany coverage of a big story unfolding inside. Law enforcement agencies might want to deploy a UAV instead of an officer or firefighter to scope out a dangerous situation. And members themselves might have ideas for drones as tools for legislative fact-finding.  

One of the first authorized appearances of one of the machines as a lawmaking prop came a week ago, when a red-and-black quadcopter was permitted a brief and balky cruise around the House Science Committee room during a hearing about the integration of drones into the commercial air system.  

The FAA has spent a decade debating how to permit commercial drones to share the skies with piloted aircraft, while leaving model airplane pilots much less regulated. In 2012, Congress ordered the agency to finalize its proposal no later than this September. Even if that deadline is met, the rule-making process means two more years before the regulations are finalized and implemented.  

“With the discovery of an unauthorized drone on the White House lawn, the eagle has crash-landed in Washington,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., brayed in a news release. “There is no stronger sign that clear FAA guidelines for drones are needed.”  

Separately, President Barack Obama said Tuesday that his team is working on an executive order further shaping the rules. “I’ve assigned some of the relevant agencies to start talking to stakeholders and figure out how we’re going to put an architecture in place that makes sure that these things aren’t dangerous and that they’re not violating people’s privacy,” he told CNN from India, where he was when the drone plunked down in his backyard.  

That’s one Obama executive action that might win bipartisan approval from a Congress not quite ready for the impending drone era.  



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