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FAA Grounds Drones Inside Washington, DC

A lighthearted drone “smackdown” reveals anxiety about robot planes buzzing around the District.

“Drones are the future. And we’re really not ready for them.” Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Sunday was a great day for flying. Flying drones, that is. But not within a 15-mile radius of the District.

Fort Reno Park, in Upper Northwest, was to be the site of a first-of-its-kind Drone Smackdown, a robot dogfight organized by a group of national security experts and bloggers and officiated by yours truly. But only a few days before the battle was to commence, the FAA called the organizer of the melee, Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution, and, in so many polite but firm words, told him to get out of town.

The park is well within a 360-degree flight-restricted zone that emanates 15 miles out from Washington Reagan National Airport. Anyone who has flown into DCA knows the twists and turns aircraft have to make in order to avoid the White House, the Capitol, and other key government facilities. Well, this restricted airspace apparently applies to drones, too.

In the context of the Smackdown, this seems rather silly. The drones the five combatants planned to launch can barely be called drones at all. They’re toys. You can buy them at Brookstone. They only fly about 15 minutes before they need a new battery. And the puny strength of their engines means they can’t get off the ground with much added weight, so the most fearsome weapons the Smackdown drones could carry were long pieces of string or thin wires meant to get tangled in a competing drone’s rotors.

Nevertheless, the FAA feels there’s a precedent at stake, and it isn’t just cracking down on a little good-natured robo-sport among wonks. DC resident Adam Eidinger (yes, that Adam Eidinger), who lost and eventually recovered his drone after an ill-fated flight in Adams Morgan, was also contacted by the FAA and asked to ground his aircraft.

Now, reasonable people can disagree about whether the FAA has lost its sense of proportion by equating a remote-controlled toy airplane with the kinds of unmanned aircraft the military operates. But, as an FAA official explained, the agency felt hemmed in by precedent, and was afraid that if Smackdown went forward within the restricted zone, more tiny menacing drones could follow.

But I detect another worry in the FAA’s rationale for raining on our parade. In its correspondence with Eidinger, an FAA official wrote, “These restrictions … are necessary at this time due to the technical pace of [drone] development and the proliferation of aircraft in the National Airspace System.”

Translation: People are building more drones all the time; they’re getting smaller, cheaper, and more available to regular folks; and the FAA is worried about traffic jams in the skies over Washington.

The FAA’s concerns aren’t unfounded. By September 2015, the agency is required to come up with a plan for integrating “unmanned aerial systems,” as the drones are officially called, into the domestic airspace. That means that by 2015, the FAA has to come up with a set of rules not for why you can’t fly a drone over Washington, but how you can fly a drone over Washington.

Having reported a lot on drones recently, I’ve concluded that a future of robot-filled skies is inevitable. And eventually, these drones won’t be controlled by human pilots at all. They’ll be largely autonomous. As silly as it seemed for the FAA to keep us from flying a few toy planes around a park on a Sunday afternoon, I understand the basis of their anxiety. Drones are the future. And we’re really not ready for them.

As it happened, even after we moved the Smackdown to Virginia, just outside the restricted zone, our hopes of intense aerial combat were dashed—not by regulators, but by hackers.

With the help of some expert computer coders, Wittes’s 11- and 14-year-old children got into the competing drones’ wi-fi networks and disabled their controls. The human pilots, who were steering their ill-fated aircraft with an iPhone app, found themselves cut off from their drones or unable to control them once they (barely) got off the ground. The Wittes kids delighted in their digital shenanigans, which, they explained to more than one baffled adult, were quite simple really: The competitors had all left their networks open and undefended.

Two lessons there: 1) Ignore basic cybersecurity at your peril. 2) Children are the future. Also robots.

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