The FAA Will Ban Drones From Flying Near Nuclear Research Labs, for Some Reason

Image:AP
Image:AP

Oak Ridge. Y-12. Los Alamos. For drone operators it appears these and four other Department of Energy nuclear research facilities were theoretically places an unmanned aircraft could have been flown. And for the next week and a half that remains the case until new FAA restrictions take effect on December 29th.

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Yes, by all accounts nothing on the FAA’s books prevented the extraordinarily brave or the profoundly stupid from buzzing a quadcopter near the laboratory where the Manhattan Project unfolded. As the press release worryingly notes:

This is the first time the agency has placed specific airspace restrictions for unmanned aircraft, or “drones,” over DOE sites.

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We’ve reached out to learn what non-drone restrictions existed prior, and why specific language regarding unmanned flight was necessary.

Although the FAA has been steadily cracking down on where drones can be operated, somehow the Grand Coulee Dam’s safety was given consideration nearly three months before, well, places that deal (or dealt) with government secrets and hazardous materials handling. Weird!

Strangest of all is that these restrictions are not an outright ban:

There are only a few exceptions that permit drone flights within these restrictions, and they must be coordinated with the individual facility and/or the FAA.

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Again, we’ve contacted the FAA to ask what compelling exceptions might exist wherein a drone operator would be allowed to fly anywhere near these structures. Personally, nothing comes to mind.

Update 10:30pm ET: The FAA confirmed to Gizmodo that there were no previous restrictions on manned (or unmanned) aircraft at these sites. Go figure.

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Senior reporter. Tech + labor /// bgmwrites@gmail.com Keybase: keybase.io/bryangm Securedrop: http://gmg7jl25ony5g7ws.onion/

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DISCUSSION

Personally, nothing comes to mind.

Well, first you might consider that they don’t want random drones flying around that they don’t know who is behind the controller. That seems like an obvious safety concern. Also consider that up until recently no one thought of small, civilian drones as potential weapons. Now we understand that they can be “weaponized”, maybe not like a military drone but dangerous nonetheless. Especially since they’ve become a lot more sophisticated than they were even 5 years ago. Now you can get a drone for under $500 that can be programmed using GPS coordinates and can fly autonomously.

But there may be legitimate reasons to want to fly a drone around such a facility. Maybe a legit documentary is being filmed. Maybe someone wants to check the facilities for maintenance reasons. Maybe they just want to get some pics for their annual report or whatever publication they put out.

The point is there are lots of good reasons someone might want to fly in that area and they just want to make sure they know who it is and why they are flying around a facility that houses important but classified research. I honestly don’t see the mystery here.