Drone incident reflects need for better defense

It sounds like something out of a Hollywood movie: A radio-controlled drone skims over the barricade at the White House and zooms toward the president as he participates in the annual Easter egg roll. Rogue Secret Service agent Channing Tatum shoots it down seconds before it can strike the leader of the free world.

That’s not what happened Monday. The president was out of the country, it’s months until Easter and as for rogue agents . . . well, let’s not go there.

But something unsettling did happen: A 2-foot quad helicopter drone – the kind that is widely available for a few hundred dollars – was discovered on the White House lawn. A Washington has admitted that he had lost control of the recreational drone.

The incident likely sent shivers up the spines of those charged with the president’s security. They were already well aware of the potential terrorist uses of such unmanned devices; the larger models are capable of carrying payloads of up to 30 pounds.

The big fear: a drone carrying explosives that could be remotely detonated. In fact, a Massachusetts man got a 17-year sentence in 2012 for plotting a drone attack on the Capitol and the Pentagon involving plastic explosives detonated by cellphone. There have also been several near-misses with commercial aircraft that have drone critics saying it’s only a matter of time before one of the devices causes an accident.

Current rules do not allow drones to be flown within five miles of an airport or in a populated area, and no type of aircraft can be flown over the capital without special approval – a requirement since the 9/11 terror attacks. So the drone that flew onto the White House lawn was illegal on three counts. (Reagan National Airport is less than five miles from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.)

If there’s some kind of book to be thrown at the operator, let’s hope it hits him upside the head with enough force to deter others from the same kind of stunt.

The incident comes as the Federal Aviation Administration is developing more extensive rules for commercial drones, and proponents of the devices fear it will lead to such onerous regulations that it will put a chill on the budding industry.

There are many worthwhile commercial uses for drones, everything from news gathering to monitoring remote, hard-to-reach property. It’s unclear whether the new rules will apply to hobbyists such as the one involved with the White House incident. They are not required to register their devices or affix identifying information, making it difficult to track them down.

Drone technology has arrived, and it’s not going away. Authorities must set out reasonable rules for their use and hold operators accountable when they break them without creating undue burdens for lawful users.

But it’s also clear that drones present a disturbing security dilemma – and not just for the president. Government officials are concerned about the potential threat they pose to nuclear power plants, military installations and other sensitive locations. While technology exists to detect the presence of drones, research is clearly needed on ways to better protect against lethal uses of the devices.