Another voice: Crafting a flight plan (w/video)

Published Jan. 31, 2015

Some people intend to be national security threats. Others are just drunk. In the case of Monday's drone crash on the southeast corner of the White House grounds, the immediate problem seems to have been an inebriated pilot. But the underlying issue is that the federal government poorly regulates the booming drone industry. The right response is not overreaction but rather tightening rules and procedures in some ways — and loosening them in others.

The White House has seen a handful of eye-raising security breaches in recent years, including one in September in which a man armed with a knife hopped the perimeter fence and ran into the building. In response, security continues to tighten. Among the most visible changes are unsightly waist-high fences around the building. Following the latest breach, the Secret Service says it won't install golf netting around the White House grounds. That's good: Washington has already become a city of concrete bollards and security cordons; official buildings shouldn't be wholly removed from the public.

Federal authorities can and should enhance security against drones and other threats in smarter, less obtrusive ways. Technologies in the pipeline could detect small incoming aircraft. The trick will be intercepting or jamming drones on their way toward the West Wing without harming bystanders.

Rather than shooting errant drones out of the sky, it would be better to ensure that they never get near sensitive areas. At the moment, the Federal Aviation Administration requires that amateur drone pilots keep their devices at least 5 miles away from airports and below 400 feet. But several recent near-miss episodes between descending jetliners and drones demonstrate that these rules are far from perfectly applied. The responsibility is mostly in operators' hands. The FAA should look into requiring that safety protocols be written into drone firmware, which would automatically prevent operation in unauthorized airspace, no matter how inebriated operators are.

Until the agency does that, high-profile enforcement in cases of serious rule-breaking might help. The government hasn't released the name of the man who flew his 2-foot-by-2-foot unmanned aerial vehicle into restricted White House airspace Monday. Whoever he is, he should be punished publicly, showing other amateur drone pilots that responsibly operating their drones isn't optional.

In other ways, the government should loosen up. The FAA generally doesn't allow drone flights for commercial purposes even as amateurs take to the sky freely. The agency is developing rules that would allow more commercial drone flying — but might also require commercial operators to carry full pilot's licenses, which would be another form of regulatory overkill. The aim should be to prevent midair collisions and cordon off restricted airspace. Licensing makes sense, but requiring hours of cockpit time does not.