A small unmanned helicopter drone crashed onto the grounds of the White House early Monday morning, posing no threat but triggering an immediate lockdown at the executive mansion, which has been the subject of recent security breaches.
It also renewed calls for tighter regulations of the aerial devices, which are increasingly popular with photographers and amateur aviation enthusiasts.
Hours after investigators had examined the device and reopened the compound, an individual called the Secret Service and told it that the device had been in the individual’s control and was being flown for recreational use.
The unidentified person was being interviewed by Secret Service agents and was “fully cooperative,” Secret Service spokesman Brian Leary said.
“Initial indications are that the incident occurred as a result of recreational use,” Leary said, but he added that the service would continue to conduct interviews, “forensic examinations and review all other investigative leads.”
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama were in India at the time of the crash, though their daughters, Sasha and Malia, did not accompany them on the trip.
The device was spotted about 3:08 a.m. by a Secret Service uniformed division officer posted on the south grounds of the White House – the side that faces the large grass-covered Ellipse and the Washington Monument beyond. The officer both saw and heard the drone-like device flying at a “very low altitude” before it crashed onto the southeast side of the complex, the service said.
The entire executive mansion compound was in lockdown until the device – about 2 feet in diameter – was examined and cleared, the service said.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters traveling with Obama in New Delhi that the Secret Service had recovered a “device,” though he declined to call it a drone, near the White House.
Quadcopters are unmanned helicopters with four rotors that are increasing popular with photographers and other enthusiasts because of their small size and abilities to return with aerial photographs.
Though flying over much of Washington – even for recreational purposes – is prohibited as a result of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the crash renewed fears among lawmakers that more needs to be done to secure the White House.
The complex has been the site of dangerous breaches, including an embarrassing September incident in which a man scaled the fence on the North side and ran far into the White House through an unlocked front door. A panel charged with reviewing security at the executive mansion has already recommended making the fence more difficult to climb.
The incident comes as such small aircraft have become very popular and as the Federal Aviation Administration is expected to issue long-awaited rules concerning their operation. Congress ordered the introduction of new rules in 2012, and the FAA noted last year several incidents involving what it called the “reckless use of unmanned model aircraft near airports involving large crowds of people.”
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said the latest incident should give urgency to the task. Schumer charged earlier this month that clear guidelines for drone owners had been “stuck in federal bureaucracy for far too long.” He noted that at least two drones had entered Westchester County airspace and had been spotted by pilots and air traffic controllers at other New York airports including JFK and LaGuardia.
“With the discovery of an unauthorized drone on the White House lawn, the eagle has crash-landed in Washington,” Schumer said. “There is no stronger sign that clear FAA guidelines for drones are needed.”
He said the FAA had been working on the regulations “for years,” but that an FAA rule was still before the White House’s Office of Management and Budget for review.
The industry, hobby groups and the FAA last month launched an education campaign titled “Know Before You Fly.”
“The ease of acquiring UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) technology has led to a proliferation of unmanned flights, some of which are authorized and some of which are not,” the campaign said. “When it comes to unauthorized flights, many well-meaning individuals and prospective business operators want to fly and fly safely, but they don’t realize that, just because you can buy a UAS, doesn’t mean you can fly it anywhere, or for any purpose.”
The tips include not flying over “sensitive infrastructure or property,” including power stations, water treatment facilities, correctional facilities, heavily traveled roadways and government facilities.