The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Secret Service conducting drone exercises in U.S. capital region

(AP/Francois Mori)

The Secret Service on Tuesday announced plans for conducting drone exercises in the Washington, D.C., area, but the agency provided few details about the program and declined to answer basic questions about it.

The agency’s brief announcement, just two paragraphs and 76 words long, said exercises will take place “in the coming days and weeks” in “normally flight restricted areas.” It did not specify dates, times or locations for the exercises.

Secret Service spokeswoman Nicole Mainar on Tuesday declined to answer questions about the what types of drones the agency would use and the nature of the tests.

In January, a small drone crashed on White House property after flying at a low altitude above the grounds without setting off alarms. The operator of the robotic aircraft said the incident was an accident.

The episode exposed a security gap that the Secret Service has spent years trying to fix with little success: How to identify and disable unmanned aircraft. Four days before the crash, a panel of experts warned a group of lawmakers examining White House security about the problem, according to a Washington Post report.

The Secret Service found a "quadcopter" drone on White House grounds. The Post’s Carol D. Leonnig explains how the White House is protected from aerial threats. (Video: Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

Recreational and commercial drones are a growing concern for the federal government, pilots and the airline industry. Most lack the power to do much harm, but officials from the Department of Homeland Security and Secret Service have studied their potential to carry explosives and weaponry.

The unmanned aircraft are increasingly interfering with air traffic and threatening passenger planes in the absence of oversight and clear safety standards, according to a Washington Post report in December.

The Federal Aviation Administration said in a report last year that near-collisions between drones and airliners had soared in the previous six months, with 25 incidents occurring during that time. The episodes were among 175 in which pilots and air-traffic controllers reported seeing drones near airports or in restricted airspace.

Congress passed legislation in 2012 ordering the FAA to safely integrate drones into the national airspace, but the regulations are taking years to develop.

Current FAA guidelines allow hobbyists to fly small unmanned aircraft for recreational purposes if the devices are kept under 400 feet, five miles away from airports and outside other restricted areas. Airspace near the White House and U.S. Capitol are highly restricted.

The Secret Service said it has “coordinated with all appropriate federal, state and local agencies” in preparation for its drone exercises. Below is the full text of the agency’s Tuesday announcement:

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – The United States Secret Service, in conjunction with other inter-agency partners, will conduct a series of exercises involving unmanned aircraft systems, in the coming days and weeks.
Because these exercises will be conducted within the normally flight restricted areas in the Washington D.C. area, they have been carefully planned and will be tightly controlled. In preparation for these exercises the Secret Service has coordinated with all appropriate federal, state and local agencies.