News & Politics

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

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
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

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,

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
. 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.