FAA Restricts Drone Flights Over Landmarks as Concern Mounts

Responding to concerns by federal law enforcement agencies over the threat potential of small drones, the FAA will restrict drone flights near the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, and other national landmarks, effective October 5. The restrictions, involving Department of the Interior-managed sites, add to restrictions the FAA announced earlier this year for U.S. military sites.

The FAA and Interior have agreed to restrict drone flights “up to 400 feet within the lateral boundaries” of 10 sites, according to the September 28 announcement, which links to an interactive map displaying the site boundaries. As with its April announcement restricting drone flights over 133 military facilities, the FAA cited a federal regulation—14 CFR 99.7 Special Security Instructions—as giving it the authority.

Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and other U.S. federal agencies’ concerns over rogue drones have slowed the FAA’s process of developing regulations that would allow drone flights over people and beyond the pilot’s visual line of sight—rules considered essential to advancing commercial drone operations.

“It is a topic that we’ve been discussing a lot lately,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray, during a “Threats to the Homeland,” hearing on September 27 before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “We do know that terrorist organizations have an interest in using drones; we’ve seen that overseas already with some growing frequency, and the expectation is it’s coming here imminently. I think they are relatively easy to acquire, relatively easy to operate, and quite difficult to disrupt and monitor.”

Responding to further questions from Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota), National Counterterrorism Center director Nicholas Rasmussen described a coordinated effort by federal agencies to address the drone threat and loop state and local agencies into the response.

“We saw ISIS and other groups using these capabilities overseas on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria,” he said. “We’ve brought the community of intelligence professionals together in Washington to try to present a clear picture that we can then share with state and local partners around the country and begin to explain at least the tactics and techniques that individuals might use to try to bring harm to communities—that can be dropping a small explosive the size of a grenade, it could be dispersal of toxins, potentially.

“Sharing that information is a first step; the next step is to begin to think about true defensive measures that either we employ as a federal government or recommend to state and local governments that they could employ at manageable cost.”

Rasmussen added: “There is a community of experts that has emerged inside the federal government [that] is focused on this pretty full time. Two years ago, this was not a problem. A year ago, this was an emerging problem. Now it’s a real problem and so we are quickly trying to up our game on this.”

Acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke alluded to regulatory changes the agencies want Congress to make, which would allow them to intercept or destroy rogue drones.

“We are seeing an increased use of drones," Duke said. "They could be for surveillance, they could be for bringing illicit materials, or they could be for enacting violence. What we lack [is] the ability to interdict the [control] signals so that we can try to determine if this is a friendly- or foe-type drone. We’re not the only ones lacking that ability. I think because it’s a new threat, the specific authorities to monitor these drones does not exist generally.”

Overflight restrictions will become effective at the following sites, the FAA said: the Statue of Liberty in New York City; the Boston National Historical Park, site of the U.S.S. Constitution; Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia; Folsom Dam, in Folsom, California; Glen Canyon Dam in Lake Powell, Arizona; Grand Coulee Dam in Grand Coulee, Washington; Hoover Dam in Boulder City, Nevada; Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, in St. Louis, Missouri; Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Keystone, South Dakota; and Shasta Dam at Shasta Lake, California.

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