WASHINGTON : A system to detect flying objects failed to pick up a small drone, raising questions about whether the Secret Service could bring down a similar object if it had to.
A White House radar system designed to detect flying objects like planes, missiles and large drones failed to pick up a small drone that crashed into a tree on the South Lawn early Monday morning, according to law enforcement officials. The crash raised questions about whether the Secret Service could bring down a similar object if it endangered President Obama, reports New York Times.
The drone, which was about two feet in diameter and weighed about two pounds, was operated by a government employee whom the Secret Service did not identify. The agency said the employee was flying the object near the White House around 3 a.m. for recreational purposes when he lost control of it. Officials did not explain why the man, who does not work at the White House and who has not been charged with a crime, was flying the drone at that hour.
The crash was the latest security breach showing the difficulties the Secret Service has had protecting the White House in recent years. In September, a man with a knife climbed over the White House fence and made it deep inside the building before officers tackled him. In 2011, a gunman fired shots that hit the White House while one of the Obama daughters was home.
On Monday, a Secret Service officer who was posted on the south grounds of the White House “heard and observed” the drone, the agency said, but the officer and others stationed at the residence were unable to bring it down before it passed over the White House fence and struck a tree. The drone was too small and flying too low to be detected by radar, officials said, adding that because of its size, it could easily have been confused for a large bird.
The incident comes just days after the Department of Homeland Security held a conference in Arlington, Va., on the dangers that such drones pose to the nation’s critical infrastructure and government facilities. On display at the meeting was a DJI Phantom drone — the same type of drone that crashed at the White House on Monday. But the drone on display had three pounds of fake explosives attached to the payload as part of an effort to show how easily it could be used to launch an attack, according to a participant at the conference.
A counterterrorism official at the meeting warned that small drones could also be used to launch chemical and biological attacks, according to Daniel Herbert, who attended the conference.
Mr. Herbert, who runs an online business that repairs drones and trains people to operate them, said that the official with the National Counterterrorism Center told participants at the meeting that the drones present a serious threat to the nation’s infrastructure, and that the DJI Phantom is the terrorist’s drone of choice.
The counterterrorism official told the participants, according to Mr. Herbert, that the threat from drones like the Phantom was getting worse and was of concern to the White House. Officials at the counterterrorism center disputed Mr. Herbert’s characterization of their analysts’ comments at the meeting.
In a photograph released by the Secret Service, the drone that crashed on the South Lawn looks partly broken. It appears to be a version of the DJI Phantom Aerial UAV Drone Quadcopter that is sold on Amazon.com starting at $479. Models equipped with high-definition cameras sell for as much as $1,258 on the website.
In a statement Monday afternoon, the Secret Service said a man had called the agency about 9:30 a.m. Monday to report that he had been the one controlling the drone when it crashed on the White House grounds.
“The individual has been interviewed by Secret Service agents and been fully cooperative,” the statement said. “Initial indications are that this incident occurred as a result of recreational use of the device.” Under federal law, it is illegal to fly a drone in Washington.
Secret Service agents conducted interviews on Monday with people who knew or had spoken to the government employee in an attempt to substantiate his account. Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, who is traveling with President Obama and Michelle Obama in India, said both Obama daughters were home at the time of the incident. The drone caused a temporary lockdown at the White House. Mr. Earnest said the craft did not appear to be dangerous.
Security experts said on Monday that small drones are particularly difficult to defend against because it is hard to shoot them down. A military official said that the Defense Department “typically scrambles fighter aircraft for aerial threats over Washington, but when it gets to a toy, that’s not something the military typically addresses.”
Officials said a drone like the one that crashed on Monday was probably too small to carry enough explosives to significantly damage the White House structure. But the president is often outside the building on the White House grounds.
Mr. Obama and Denis R. McDonough, the White House chief of staff, walk outside when the weather is nice, making their way along the circular driveway on the south side of the building. Mr. Obama also frequently participates in ceremonies on the South Lawn, on the other side of the fence that circles the complex.
The president’s helicopter, Marine One, lands and takes off on the South Lawn, just steps from the entrance to the residence. Mr. Obama sometimes stands in front of the helicopter for several minutes to make a statement to the press.
Several years ago, the Secret Service’s air security branch, which protects the area around the White House, began a classified study of how to bring down small drones. Since then the agency has tried to develop new detection methods and ways to stop them.
“There’s no silver bullet,” a law enforcement official said. “It’s difficult because if you bring it down on Pennsylvania Avenue you could kill a dozen tourists.”
The Secret Service declined to discuss radar abilities at the White House and why the drone was not detected.
Brian Hearing, a founder of Droneshield L.L.C., which makes drone detection systems for prisons and nuclear facilities, said radar systems are effectively useless for catching such small drones. If the systems were set to be sensitive enough to detect the drones, they would also detect every bird or swaying tree, he said.
Many small drones also have a GPS function designed to return the drone to its user if it loses contact with the remote control, Mr. Hearing said. But it is also simple to program the GPS function to fly directly to a specific address, such as 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Technology is available to jam the signals of an approaching drone, Mr. Hearing said, which could cause the drone either to fall to the ground or to return to its user. Such technology, much of it made in China, is illegal for consumers and others to use, he said. Even more sophisticated jammers could allow those protecting the White House to take control of the drone from a user.