Unmanned, unregulated & on White House grounds: Obama says drones need rules

US President Barack Obama (Reuters / Jonathan Ernst)
President Barack Obama has acknowledged that federal laws for unmanned aerial vehicles – or drones – lag behind the technology readily available to consumers. His remarks came hours after a small UAV was found to have crashed on White House grounds.

READ MORE: ‘Small drone’ found on White House grounds, Secret Service looking for suspects

Obama, speaking from India, told CNN that drones have magnificent potential, especially for commercial reasons, but overarching regulatory guidelines are lacking on this point.

"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, adding that his administration "is seeing if we can start providing some sort of framework that ensures that we get the good and minimize the bad."

Federal agencies -- especially the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) -- are currently compiling rules and protocol to safely integrate unmanned aircraft systems into American skies with the goal of proposing a structure this year.

Pursuant to the 2012 Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act, the FAA is obliged to finally incorporate drones -- with supposed privacy protections -- into US air traffic by September 30, 2015, though it is highly unlikely that the deadline will be met. Even once proposed, the definitive version of commercial drone regulation will likely take years.

READ MORE: ‘Project Wing’: Google tests drone deliveries in outback Australia

The Secret Service announced Monday that one of its agents saw and heard a two-foot-wide "quadcopter" fly at a low altitude over the White House premises at about 3 a.m. local time. An unidentified man informed the Secret Service around 9:30 a.m. that he had lost control of the drone before it crashed onto the grounds, the agency said in a statement. The UAV operator has been "been fully cooperative" and "initial indications are that this incident occurred as a result of recreational use of the device," the Secret Service said.

Obama said drones like the one that caused a two-hour lockdown at the White House on Monday -- all while the president and first lady were overseas -- could be bought at a Radio Shack. There are "incredibly useful functions,” he said, “that these drones can play in terms of farmers who are managing crops and conservationists who want to take stock of wildlife."

"But we don't really have any kind of regulatory structure at all for it,” he added.

Current regulations

Existing FAA regulations allow Americans to fly small drones for recreational use at least 8 km (5 miles) away from any airport and at an altitude no more than 120 meters (400 feet).

Drone use is prohibited at night, and a drone operator must always keep the UAV in sight.

The FAA might soon propose a “risk-based” blanket exemption from regulations for small drones weighing less than 2.25kg (5lbs). Neighboring Canada has already approved such an exemption for small UAVs.

Unauthorized use of private UAVs near airports and at high altitudes among manned aircraft currently remains the principal headache for civil aviation. From June to November 2014, there were at least 25 episodes when drones came close or nearly collided with manned aircraft, the Washington Post reported in late November.

READ MORE: Drone near-misses with piloted aircraft surge in US airspace – watchdog

The FAA has said about 7,500 commercial drones will be in the US skies within five years once regulations go into effect.

The agency has allowed some commercial drones to fly in American skies. In June, the FAA granted the first commercial drone license to oil giant BP. In September,six Hollywood production companies were granted licenses to use drones while filming television shows and movies. Amazon is among many companies and organizations seeking a permit to begin delivery flights.

Meanwhile, the FAA has largely told other users, such as photographers and videographers, to cease their drone flights or face fines. Raphael Pirker was fined $10,000 by the FAA for flying his Ritewing Zephyr drone he was using to shoot a video on the University of Virginia campus in 2011. He appealed the fine, but the National Transportation Safety Board later agreed with the FAA in November 2014, stating that current federal regulations defining aircraft as “any device … used for flight in the air” applies to "any aircraft, manned or unmanned, large or small."

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 20 US states have laws that guide unmanned aerial systems (UAS) usage. Various laws address what a UAS, UAV, or drone is; how government agencies or law enforcement can use them; how the public can use them; how they can be used for hunting; and for use at official FAA test sites around the US.

A ‘kill list’ legacy

While domestic drone use, both recreationally and commercially, is developing slowly as rules are crafted and debated in Washington, the Obama administration has used technological advances in unmanned lethal drones to revolutionize warfare overseas, portending ominous implications for the 21st century.

The US has employed UAVs to treat the world as a battlefield, as the likes of missile-firing, surveillance-capable Predator and Reaper drones, for instance, have been used to attack areas -- with much danger to civilians, according to numerous reports -- in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, all without an international legal framework and with only America’s take-our-word-for-it assurances that lethal drones are guided by some sort of ethical or moral compass.

READ MORE: Only 84 of 2,379 US drone attacks victims in Pakistan confirmed Al-Qaeda militants - report

“There was no oversight. I just know that the inside of the entire program was diseased and people need to know what happens to those that were on the inside,” former US drone sensor operator Brandon Bryant told RT’s Anissa Naouai. “People need to know the lack of oversight, the lack of accountability that happen.”

Obama’s legacy may ultimately rest with the dawn of this new epoch of warfare, as his administration has infamously kept a ‘kill list’ of alleged terror suspects that are targeted by the CIA’s secretive drone regime with no external oversight or accountability.

For example, the US has operated clandestine, CIA-run unmanned drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004. The US justifies this violation of Pakistani sovereignty with the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, a law the US Congress signed days after the 9/11 strikes that granted the US president the right to use “all necessary and appropriate force” against those behind the attacks on America. In May 2013, nearly 12 years after the law’s signing, Obama – in promising reforms to the drone program that are difficult to verify based on the government's secrecy – clarified who falls into that category as “Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and its associated forces.”

Pakistan has denounced US drone activity, claiming it is illegal and counterproductive. Yet many believe the two nations collude in their mutual desire to eradicate Islamist militants from the semi-autonomous tribal areas on the Afghan border.

US officials avoid acknowledging CIA drone strikes, instead preferring to assure that any strikes are used against top Islamist militants when capture is not available. The New York Times reported in May 2012 that those targeted for strikes -- Obama's ‘kill list’ -- are cleared through the White House during weekly meetings dubbed ‘Terror Tuesdays.’

RT's The Resident talks drones and the US Congress