The irony of living in the District of Columbia just keeps getting richer. Residents of the capital of the world’s leading democracy already have no voting representatives in Congress. Now their ability to fly drones — restricted to a level unmatched across the United States — is about to get even more limited.
On Wednesday, DJI — the manufacturer of the popular Phantom drone — announced a firmware update that will make it impossible to fly a Phantom across greater Washington. The move complies with the no-fly zone over the metro area, which was enacted after 9/11 to allow time to intercept a terrorist-controlled flight. Late Thursday Ehang, maker of the Ghost drone, told me it will follow DJI’s footsteps and soon update its software so its drones can’t take off in or fly in the greater D.C. area.
Although there are other no-fly zones around the country — generally airports and military bases — no major city has a situation like D.C.’s no-fly zone that extends on a 15-mile radius from downtown.
But Washington’s unparalleled restrictions on drone usage don’t make high-value targets such as White House safer, instead they only hamstring local entrepreneurs and innovators.
“Somebody who wants to use a drone maliciously is not going to be thwarted by technology that restricts everyone’s use,” said Brendan Schulman, head of commercial drone law at Kramer Levin. “While it makes sense to have a ring around Washington, D.C. for manned aircraft so they can be intercepted by the Air Force, the same type of provision doesn’t necessarily make sense for small consumer drones.”
Flying drones in the D.C. area has long been technically illegal, but generally not enforced. The DJI and Ehang updates could more effectively ground drones in the area since they won’t even be able to turn on in the GPS coordinates covered by the no-fly zone. Hobbyists flying Phantom and Ghost drones indoors — where the no-fly zone doesn’t apply — will also be affected.
The news could lead to more manufacturers following suit and making their products powerless in the greater D.C. area. Other drone manufacturers that market to U.S. consumers, Hubsan, Parrot and 3D Robotics, did not respond to requests for comment.
“This would be like saying we shouldn’t let anyone drive a car in the D.C. area simply because one idiot might use it to drive into the White House fence,” said Adam Thierer, a senior research fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center. “The idea that the entire Washington, D.C. metro area should be a drone-free zone is hugely troubling. We might as well put a huge sign up at the edge of town that says ‘Innovators not allowed.’ ”
While terrorists could build their own drones with custom software that’s not impacted by D.C.’s no-fly zone, local researchers and entrepreneurs who respect the rules will be the ones to suffer.
Take for example the D.C. Area Drone User Group. President Christopher Vo says the group hasn’t flown in several months because it struggles to find a place to fly legally. Vo calls DJI’s move “a good thing” as it will improve safety for new pilots. One spot his club has flown is in Southern Maryland, two hours from Vo’s home in the Virginia suburbs.
Because of D.C.’s sprawling no-fly zone, a search-and-rescue operation couldn’t use a drone to help find a lost child in the area. Researchers can’t use drones to study marine life on the Potomac or Anacostia rivers.
“At the point we’re at now, I don’t see that it’s a huge impact on our abilities, but it definitely would be for civil and commercial uses in the future,” said Matthew Scassero, director of the University of Maryland UAS test site.
The university’s campus in College Park is inside the restricted flight zone, so Scassero tests elsewhere in Southern Maryland. In addition to abiding by the FAA guidelines, he cited the benefit of testing away from the dense campus for safety reasons.
Maryland professor Thomas Snitch, who uses drones in Africa to prevent poaching, called the DJI news a good thing.
“It’ll keep the average person from doing something stupid,” Snitch said. “But for someone determined to breach the White House, they probably wouldn’t fly a Phantom,” because quadcopters lack the speed of fixed-wing aircraft.
According to his research, a fixed-wing drone, loaded with explosives and launched from a vehicle parked on Constitutional Avenue, could reach the White House balcony in 34 seconds. Current regulations — which restrict a law-abiding high school robotics class in the city’s suburbs from flying a drone for education purposes — would do nothing to stop such an attack.
“Right now I don’t see any technical solution to keep someone from flying a UAV into the White House compound,” Snitch said. “If you ask how to stop that, I don’t know. I don’t know. You might have some type of net that you would pop up.”
So while a lot fewer drones are likely to appear over Washington’s skies, the most dangerous ones may still fly free.