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A Game of Drones: the implications of the White House breach

Earlier today it was announced that a small drone had landed on the White House lawn, inside the supposedly secure perimeter.  Today’s incident is, unfortunately, the latest in what seems to have been a series of White House security breaches lately.

While little is known about the details at this stage, and while it is likely that the incident in itself did not pose an immediate security risk, it is not premature to point out that the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) domestically do raise significant implications for safety, policy, privacy, and law.

Keep in mind that UAVs serve multiple purposes, both militarily and commercially.  To name a few: they can be used for surveillance and they can carry weapons’ payloads or from a commercial perspective they can be utilized for aerial photography, whether for relators assessing commercial property or farmers monitoring crops or livestock.

That said, it is important to recognize that not all drones are created equal. Clearly, the Predator or Reaper stands in a completely separate class from the UAVs that anybody can buy by the handful at their local convenience store or electronic store. Comparing the two is to liken a BB-gun to an AR-15. In other words, there really is no comparison at all.

Yet it would be wishful thinking to believe that advances in technology will rest ultimately only in the hands of responsible countries like the United States.  The reality is that many other countries are turning to and developing sophisticated UAVs already; and clearly,  terrorist groups are going to be looking at the implications as well.  In fact, the FBI disrupted a terrorist plot by Rezwan Ferdaus to use remote-controlled aircraft armed with explosives to target the Pentagon and U.S Capitol.

Although the White House incident today should not be conflated with the prospect of Predator drones in US airspace, I would hope that US strategists inside and outside government are thinking through the fact that, at some point, sophisticated actors will turn to UAVs for purposes such as surveillance and payload delivery.

In my view, safety is still the number one consideration for now. A drone could take down a plane and, while FAA regulations on the subject may be in development, enforcement of these rules is where the rubber will truly meet the road.