It’s a tale almost too “this town” even for Washington.
A man – a government intelligence agency employee, no less – took to the top of his G Street building late at night to show off his drone to a female companion. He had been drinking. It crashed. On the White House grounds.
At least that’s the story that’s emerged from the latest details revealed by law enforcement regarding the incident that occurred on Monday.
According to the Secret Service, in the early hours of Monday morning a two-foot wide recreational quadcopter took off from a neighborhood about 10 blocks east of the White House and flew over the President’s residence before crashing on the southeast side of the complex. The Secret Service locked down the White House shortly after 3 a.m. after an officer on the south grounds spotted the drone flying at a very low altitude.
President Barack Obama and the first lady are both away, traveling in India.
The man who was flying the drone “self-reported” his involvement in the incident and said he was using it for recreational purposes, the Secret Service told CNN.
The man, who works for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), a government entity with mapping and national security duties, was operating it from either his building’s balcony or roof when he lost control and saw it head down G Street, Secret Service sources told CNN’s Peter Morris. Another source close to the investigation told CNN’s Pamela Brown he was demonstrating the drone to a woman who was also in the apartment.
Sources told CNN that in the Secret Service interview the man said he was drinking when he flew the drone.
The company that manufactures the drone that crashed on White House grounds announced on Wednesday that it will move to disable its drones from flying in much of Washington.
The Chinese company, SZ DJI Technology Co., Ltd., will be releasing a firmware update in the next few days that prevents DJI drones from flying into restricted areas like those over the White House and Capitol Hill.
“This is in accordance with [Federal Aviation Administration] rules that already exist that restrict flight over D.C., so we’re just releasing software that more clearly follows these rules,” company spokesman Michael Perry told CNN. “We are in the process of testing it right now, should be able to release it in the next few days.”
While it will be up to the customers to install the update, Perry said it is a mandatory update, meaning future enhancements will require the new version of the software.
Deputy White House press secretary Eric Schultz said on Wednesday the White House has full confidence in the ability of the Secret Service to secure the safety and security of the grounds.
“This technology is not new to the Secret Service. This is something they’ve been working through for some time and so they also are constantly reviewing emerging technologies. This is no different,” Schultz said.
Obama, in an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria on Tuesday, said the incident highlights the need for stronger regulations surrounding the use of drones.
“I’ve actually asked the FAA and a number of agencies to examine how we are managing this new technology because the drone that landed in the White House, you buy in Radio Shack.”
The NGA confirmed in a statement issued on Tuesday one of its employees was the operator of the drone. The employee was off duty and the drone flight was not work-related, according to the statement.
In a brief phone conversation the operator declined to comment when pressed on whether he was intoxicated while flying the drone.
“I can’t really speak right now. I hope you understand,” he told CNN’s Jim Acosta.
As the incident comes into focus it calls into question how much responsibility drone manufacturers should place in the hands of their customers.
DJI’s Michael Perry told CNN that his company is leading the way when it comes to putting in place safety restrictions.
“After the incident this week it was important to demonstrate responsibility, demonstrate that we are keeping the skies safe, and open for innovations,” Perry said. “We want to provide tools that make sure people are flying in accordance with the existing rules and flying processes on their first flight,” Perry said.
“We also want to make sure the product becomes more popular and more widespread.”
Perry explained that with the update, if a drone tries to lift off in a restricted area its motors won’t even turn on. If a drone is outside a restricted area GPS data will send an alert that it is nearing restricted air space and it will automatically activate a “return to home” feature.
Before the drone can take off it marks where “home” is, so that if the drone loses connection with the operator (or nears a restricted area) it will rise to 50-100 feet and then head towards home.
An operator must maintain line of sight with the drone in order to operate it; if it flies more than 600 feet out of the line of sight it will lose that connection. The drone communicates with the operator through radio transmissions so obstructions like trees and buildings can interrupt the connection.
This raises questions about how far away the operator of Monday morning’s drone was from the White House and how far it could have traveled before losing connection.
Secret Service sources have floated the idea that the drone could have been traveling down G Street when it lost connection with the operator and attempted to return home before getting stuck on the White House grounds.
Like any computer system there is the possibility of this new software being hacked and modified but Perry claims it would be difficult.
“Our system is pretty unique. We don’t allow programmers to access the flight controller,” he told CNN. “It would take a lot of hacking.”
According to Perry they already have software in place that stops drones from flying in restricted airspace near airports. The company will also release an update that prevents drones from crossing national borders, following an incident where a smuggler’s drone flying from Mexico crash-landed just south of the U.S. border in a failed drug delivery on January 23.
As investigators look into the incident it is still unclear exactly what path the drone followed. But Perry says that the information is stored within the flight controller and could be accessed if the customer explicitly requests it.
Perry said that as of Wednesday afternoon, no law enforcement agency had been in touch about the case.
“If presented with a subpoena or warrant we would work together with law enforcement in accordance with what information we are legally able to share with them,” he said.