Friends don’t let friends drink and drone—but that’s just what happened to an inebriated off-duty employee from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in the early morning hours on January 26. And, it just so happened that his borrowed 2-foot by 2-foot DJI Phantom drone went rogue and landed on the White House grounds. It’s not every day that one’s hobby leads to a lockdown at the White House and a Secret Service investigation. This drone enthusiast’s alcohol-related misadventures not only raised additional questions on White House security measures—which has come under fire as of late, but also shined the national spotlight on drones yet again.
Over the past few years, time and again drones have made headlines. In the wake of national disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, drones were used for search and rescue operations. The agriculture industry has also relied on drones to monitor crop conditions, and even Amazon and UPS have considered using drones for package delivery—although this idea is still in the works. Importantly, the military is dependent on drones for both surveillance and strike missions. In situations like these, unmanned aerial aircraft has enabled the military to conduct dangerous operations without putting troops’ lives at risk.
Pipelines, refineries, and petrochemical facilities would also benefit from the use of drones, as these secure sites require sophisticated forms of surveillance to mitigate and protect against terrorist threats or attacks. On the flip side, drones pose a threat if they end up in the wrong hands. Spying and trespassing on private property by terrorists, environmental groups, or a meddling hobbyist is not only illegal in some states, but endanger a site’s security capabilities. However, if there is an incident, drones could be used to investigate the situation should the breached area prove to be inaccessible or too hazardous.
Like all forms of critical infrastructure, pipelines, refineries, and petrochemical facilities also require regular maintenance and constant monitoring. Drones have proven to be useful in this respect, evaluating emissions levels, tank, and pipeline integrity, etc. An aerial vantage point would clearly go beyond the capabilities of on the ground inspection crews. There is no doubt that drone technology is advancing rapidly and has a bright future as long as it is used appropriately.
Currently, there is a draft proposed rule pending from the Federal Aviation Administration at Office of Management and Budget that would regulate drone operations in national airspace. The proposed rule has yet to be published in the Federal Register and has been delayed for several months. Already, countries such as Canada and many other countries have implemented a risk based approach to drone use—therefore allowing industry to operate drones faster than in the U.S.
At a time when the world is at a heightened level of alert, there is no time to delay. It is more important than ever that regulations are put in place to not only protect against nefarious activities from unmanned aerial aircraft, but also provide certainty to industries who either want to use drones for their own purposes or seek protection from them.