Man Lost Contact With Drone Before It Sped to White House, Friend Says
WASHINGTON — In retrospect, flying the drone out the apartment window at 3 a.m. might not have been the best idea.
The young man who was operating the drone that crashed onto the White House lawn early Monday had been playing with the $500 device in his living room when he decided to open the window and fly it around outside, according to a friend who is familiar with the events.
Standing in his living room, less than a mile from the White House, the man used a remote control to guide the red-and-white plastic “quadcopter” back into the apartment through the window, and then back out again.
The man had done some drinking during a dinner date that night, the friend said, but he was not drunk. It was not until he guided the drone out the window again — perhaps 100 feet or so from the apartment — that something went wrong.
Suddenly, the man, who has not been identified by the authorities, lost contact with the drone, according to the friend. It hovered for a couple of minutes, not taking direction from the controller. And then it shot up, rising hundreds of feet into the night sky before taking off at a high speed, due east.
“The whole thing just spiraled out of control when he lost contact,” said the friend, who asked not to be identified because of the legal issues involved.
Still in his living room, the man frantically called his friend, from whom he had borrowed the drone. “It’s gone,” he said. The two men agreed that there was nothing they could do in the middle of the night, and they went to sleep.
At 8 the next morning, the man called his friend again. “Turn on the news,” he said. The two watched as Secret Service officers combed the White House lawn, securing the grounds against any potential threats.
The friend acknowledged that the man should not have been flying the drone out the window; it is illegal to fly a drone outside in the District of Columbia. But he said that much of the blame belonged to the drone itself, a DJI Phantom, which he said has a history of losing contact with its operator.
An Internet search returns many examples of customers’ complaining of a similar problem. There are YouTube videos showing the drones suddenly flying away from their operators. A Facebook page titled “DJI Flyaway & Crash Psychological Support Page” has more than 2,400 “likes” on the main page.
Michael Perry, a spokesman for the company, said their drones have safety features to prevent such episodes. But he said that the system needed to be calibrated by the user and that operating rules needed to be followed.
“Without knowing the details of this case, this reads like the pilot failed to accurately calibrate the system before take off,” Mr. Perry said. “The lack of safe practices associated with it — flying in a city, out of visual line if sight, at night, drinking, in an area where flying is restricted — demonstrates the need for better education of new pilots.”
In videos posted online, company officials say that many similar problems are the result of operator error, and that newer models of the drone have better technology to prevent such things from happening.
Law enforcement officials said the young man told the Secret Service a similar story about losing contact with the drone while operating it from inside his apartment. The officials said the Secret Service was planning to reach out to the company to investigate the claim.
The man, who works at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, has retained a lawyer, his friend said. But the friend said the man was sorry about the entire episode.
“In my opinion, the decisive factor was this flyaway, which is a well-documented flaw,” the friend said.