President Barack Obama says the wayward quadcopter that crashed harmlessly on the White House grounds shows that the U.S. must update its laws to manage the expanding frontier of commercial and consumer drones and ensure only good things come in these small packages.
It's his own administration that has lagged on the matter. Both Congress and the drone industry have pressed for rules and clarification as the technology of civilian drone use grows apace and the small unmanned craft become ever cheaper.
Obama, in a CNN interview from India, likened the 2-foot-long quadcopter that crashed on the White House lawn to one that could be bought at Radio Shack, which lists them from $50 to $700.
"We don't yet have the legal structures and the architecture both globally and within individual countries to manage them the way that we need to," Obama said Tuesday. Part of his job in his final two years in office "is seeing if we can start providing some sort of framework that ensures that we get the good and minimize the bad."
The Secret Service released no further details on the drone operator whose hapless adventure in the middle of the night Monday set off an emergency White House lockdown. The man stepped forward hours after the episode and appeared to convince investigators that the extraordinary breach of presidential security — and of existing rules for drone flights — was an innocent mistake.
Even so, the errant flight pointed to vulnerabilities in defending against small, low-flying threats as well as the risks, already becoming common, of hobbyist drones going astray in populated places or near airports.
The Federal Aviation Administration, pressed by Congress, had wanted to release proposed rules for small drones by the end of 2014. To the dismay of the drone industry, that process is now dragging into 2015. Even after rules are proposed, it is likely to be two or three years before regulations become final.
As it now stands, hobbyists can fly drones if they keep them under 400 feet in altitude, 5 miles from an airport, always within sight and not within a highly populated area. Commercial use is largely banned, with only a small number of companies permitted to use them for inspections and aerial photography.
Lethal drones have become an important part of the U.S. arsenal, used to attack enemy positions. Their civilian cousins can be used for inspecting crops and weather conditions, conducting surveillance in other many forms and even delivering packages. "Incredibly useful functions," Obama said.
Congress wanted rules for small drones in place last year and a larger framework by this September. The FAA has been waiting for the White House to approve a proposal for rules that would clear the way for small, commercial drones flights. Regulations for larger drones aren't expected anytime soon.
Separately, the White House has been working on an executive order to address privacy issues raised by drones and had expected to release that order six months ago. But that has not happened.
Obama told CNN's Fareed Zakaria he's "assigned some of the relevant agencies to start talking to stakeholders and figure out how we're going to put an architecture in place that makes sure that these things aren't dangerous and that they're not violating people's privacy."