Future Tense

Man Who Crashed Drone on White House Lawn Won’t Be Charged

There are many, many reasons you should not crash a drone here.

Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Shawn Usman, the man who crashed a drone on the White House grounds on Jan. 26, will not be criminally charged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, federal prosecutors said Wednesday.

The 31-year-old Usman lost control of a Phantom FC40 drone owned by a friend early that morning, and telephoned his employers and the Secret Service to report the incident when he learned the small model aircraft had been found on the White House grounds.

Until Wednesday, it was unclear whether Usman, a scientist at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, would face charges in the wake of the incident. The NGA has confirmed he remains an employee of the agency, and he retains his security clearance. The Federal Aviation Administration has begun a review of the incident for possible administrative action, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office press release.

James M. Garland, a lawyer for Usman, says his client is “pleased and grateful” that the U.S. attorney declined to pursue charges. While the incident was “unfortunate and understandably alarming,” Garland says, it was “totally inadvertent and completely unintentional.” He says his client wishes to express “sincere apologies” to anyone affected by the drone crash, and that Usman will continue his full cooperation with the government as the FAA conducts its review. The FAA could potentially propose a civil penalty of up to $1,100.

The incident, which made headlines across the world, is emblematic of the newfound pervasiveness of drone technology. But stories reporting that Usman was inebriated or attempting to impress a date also suggest that the media can still be inclined to treat drones like punchlines.

When I interviewed Usman in February and March, he told me that contrary to some reports, he was neither drunk nor trying to impress anyone on the morning of the incident. “I went on a date at 9 p.m.—we had pizza and then I had two glasses of wine,” said Usman, a Hawaii native who has a student pilot’s license. Usman says the date ended around 11 p.m., and he later decided to play with the small DJI Phantom FC40 drone, a device that retails for about $400 and which belonged to a friend who lives in Arlington, Virginia. Usman flew the drone out of the window of his apartment in D.C.’s Gallery Place-Chinatown area. About 50 feet from his window, it stopped responding to commands and shot into the sky, drifting westward and eventually fading from view. 

Usman consulted his friend, the owner of the drone, but neither could manage to bring the device back, and both decided it would be best to look for it during daylight. The next morning, he received a text from a friend—and realized the drone had made it all the way to the White House, a considerable distance from his apartment. He quickly called the Secret Service to report the incident.  “It was literally the worst place on the planet it could have landed,” Usman said. “Flying it out the window was in retrospect a bad idea, but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine this would have happened.”

Usman said he calibrated the compass on the small unmanned aerial vehicle “a few days” before the incident. He suspects he is a victim of a “flyaway,” an incident some DJI Phantom owners have reported in which the drone stops responding to commands and shoots into the air. 

DJI, the drone’s manufactor, maintains that the vast majority of such fly-aways can be chalked up to user error, a position some hobbyists share. After the incident, DJI issued a firmware update for the Phantom 2 series of quadcopters that created a “no fly zone” that extends 25 KM around the Washington, D.C. area, barring the UAVs from being used there. 

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the FAA and the Transportation Security Administration heavily restricted aviation, including model aviation, in the 10 nautical mile area around Reagan National Airport. The ban has never been lifted, meaning that model aircraft flight in Washington, D.C. has been effectively illegal ever since

However, the drones that have hit the consumer market don’t ship with documentation of areas in the U.S. that are illegal to fly within, and no licensing or certification system currently exists that would mandate this information be shared. Usman, for his part, says neither he nor his friend were aware that the flight restrictions applied to the small quadcopter.

Some experts feel that consumer-level drone pilots lack easy access to this information. “I don’t think the FAA has done nearly enough to educate the vast majority of buyers and users of drones on airspace issues—such as TFRs and other prohibited airspace,” says former FAA Eastern Region attorney and regional counsel Loretta Alkalay. “The FAA should be partnering with drone manufacturers to assist in educating consumers on airspace rules.”