The case of the intoxicated government worker who flew a drone onto the White House lawn launched a million jokes. Although none was actually better than the straight-faced headline in The New York Times: “White House Drone Crash Described as a U.S. Worker’s Drunken Lark.”
“My first question is whether the guy’s going to get a DUI for droning under the influence,” said Ben Trapnell, an aviation professor at the University of North Dakota. I had a great phone conversation with Trapnell about drones, aka unmanned aerial vehicles. It led me to conclude that, like so many other things in American society, this is a matter about which people differ depending on whether they live in a crowded place or an empty place.
Empty, like North Dakota, and you think of a flying camera doing crop inspections. Maybe an Amazon drone arriving at your house on the prairie with the espresso maker you just ordered.
Crowded, and you imagine a mini-helicopter crashing through your apartment window. Or hitting a light pole and falling down on a baby in a stroller. Or running into a plane, which has nearly happened on several occasions.
Even the much-heralded promise of drone-delivered pizza sounds awful if you envision hundreds of pies smashing into one another over Brooklyn every Friday night.
But about the drunk droner. This saga starred an off-duty employee of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency who had been drinking at an apartment not far from the White House when he decided, in the middle of the night, to try out a friend’s drone. He then quickly lost control of the little fellow, which crash-landed in what is at least theoretically the most heavily protected lawn in the United States.
The public conversation instantly turned to terrorism and whether a maniac could use a recreational drone to drop a bomb, or start a chemical attack. This is a terrible worry. But at least we have multitudes of dedicated, vigilant public servants, virtually all of them totally sober, working night and day to make sure this kind of thing doesn’t happen.
However, we’re not giving enough attention to the threat of normal American idiots. The kind of people who think it’s fun to sit in the backyard and point laser lights at the cockpits of incoming planes, or participate in a YouTube challenge that involves trying to snort a condom up one’s nose. The folks for whose benefit countless utility companies have written tips that include “don’t look for a gas leak with a candle or lighted match.”
Drones are supereasy to buy in stores or online. Regulating their behavior is the responsibility of the Federal Aviation Administration, which is taking its sweet time. “In 2011, Congress asked the FAA to come up with rules. Finally this fall they came out with rules,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who’s been complaining about the delays.
But wait, there’s more! “We don’t even know what they say,” Schumer continued. The FAA isn’t sharing until more of the bureaucracy gets a crack at its handiwork: “They won’t make them public until the Office of Management and Budget reviews them. OMB then sends them to other federal agencies.”
While we’re waiting around, confusion abounds. Commercial drone uses are theoretically prohibited, but there’s a widespread feeling that in the absence of rules, anything goes.
Take Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., whose wedding photographer had a drone taking pictures during the happy occasion. When critics accused him of violating FAA rules, Maloney said he “wasn’t up-to-date on the lack of regulations around the emerging technology.” The same thing was true, the congressman argued, of “most people who are about to get married.” Excellent point! Although most people who are about to get married are not serving on the House transportation subcommittee on aviation.
One of the very few drone regulations that does exist prohibits flying near airports. But clearly some do it anyway. And if you catch one, there’s no ID number to tell you who owns it. “The ones being reported in near collisions are (flown by) hobbyists, and they can go up to 55 pounds,” said a spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association, which is deeply unenthusiastic about the whole drone idea. “These aren’t like geese. The ones that can be purchased on the Internet can go as high as 7-8,000 feet.”
And then you’ve got privacy issues. “They better beware, because I’ve got a shotgun,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., when asked about drones after the White House incident. This was during an interview, in which CNN was trying to demonstrate that it is possible to communicate with a prominent politician via Snapchat. (It is possible, but probably not a good idea.)
Trapnell in North Dakota wasn’t impressed by the privacy argument. “I’d be more worried about somebody sticking a cellphone on a pole and holding it over the fence,” he argued.
Like I said, it’s crowded versus empty.