Say you are enjoying a backyard BBQ with your family one warm summer day. The grill is going, the kids are in the pool, and you are entertaining guests. Just then there is a buzzing sound from above. A drone is flying just 30 feet above you, and the camera appears to be taping and possibly broadcasting your private event back to the computer or cell phone of an uninvited guest. The drone buzzes back and forth. You wave your arms to express your desire that the drone leave the airspace above your family, to no avail. Finally, you decide to take out the 12 gauge, load some buckshot, and take aim at the annoying aircraft.
Wait. You had better rethink your decision. Shooting at the drone could put you in a big legal predicament - even jail!
The Federal Aviation Administration, in response to a series of more than a dozen such shootings, recently confirmed that shooting down a drone is a federal crime and cited The Aircraft Sabotage Act, 18 USC 32, a statute that makes it a felony to damage or destroy any aircraft, manned or unmanned.
According to an aviation attorney who teaches Drone Law at Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology, the statute also prohibits interfering with anyone “engaged in the authorized operation of such aircraft” and carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison. Threatening a drone or a drone operator would also be a federal crime subject to five years in prison under this same statute.
Exactly what constitutes an “act of violence” is not defined in the statute, but clearly shooting a drone or its pilot would qualify.
As more hobbyists and people who enjoy cool tech fly drones, the potential for abuse increases, both on the part of drone pilots annoying people and retribution by those who prefer not to be “droned.”
Commercial interest in using drones for delivery service is growing. It’s near certain that some people won’t be happy about unmanned aircraft flying low over homes in their neighborhoods, even if they do have “AMAZON DRONE DELIVERY” stenciled on the bottom. Regardless, you can’t shoot down drones.
What has happened in the dozen or more cases that have already occurred? Well, a variety of different things, from local criminal charges against the shooters for malicious destruction of property, assault and discharging a firearm in an unsafe manner - to civil lawsuits. There so far have been no federal prosecutions for drone or drone pilot sabotage under the law - but the FAA is making it clear that such charges are possible.
This is a clear example of the laws not keeping up with the ever changing technology. People, rightfully so, have an expectation of privacy regarding their property and real estate. While no-one would challenge the right of a commercial airplane crossing over their house at 1,000 above, what about your backyard BBQ being interrupted by a neighbor's drone at 30 feet? Some celebrity events and emergency circumstances such as a recent California wildfire have caused so much drone traffic, that they forced local officials to ban drone use over certain spaces, albeit temporarily.
Drones are also proving incredibly valuable for everything from search and rescue to survey work and farming (First Responders Use Drones). But they also pose an obvious threat as they are able to carry more weight and do more things. Yet people have come up with ways to put everything from guns, to chainsaws to flamethrowers on drones - and make them operate. In the hands of the wrong people, these aircraft can pose a serious risk.
What about law enforcement use of drones? Again, there is a void in both laws and regulations. While the use of a drone, with the ever improving video capabilities, could prove a real asset in many situations -- privacy advocates are rightly concerned about their misuse. Imagine a police agency that simply began flying over private property looking for any form of criminal violations - from drugs, to stolen property. Now take that a step further, and should your local tax assessor have the right to inspect your property from above for determining your property's value? What about code enforcement officials? These are troubling questions without current answers.
Another area of concern is the use of drones for hunting - both to assist hunters in finding their prey, and to assist those against hunting in catching poachers or scaring animals away from legal hunters. Michigan has passed a law preventing both of these things from happening. It is illegal to use a drone to assist in hunting in anyway, or to harass those who are hunting.
The only other Michigan law currently on the books regarding drones is a law preventing their operation around the Michigan State Capital. That's right, our legislature, concerned about a terroristic threat, was quick to protect their office building. A couple of Michigan legislators introduced bills that would have prevented drone use above any private property in Michigan without the owner's permission. That seems a bit excessive, and is currently in committee.
Now, there are federal rules that prohibit flying any type of aircraft over or above large public gatherings, such as football game. Drones cannot go above 400 feet, or fly near prisons or airports.
As drones become more popular, have longer range and more features - these problems will continue to escalate. The current confusion regarding what is legal use of these unmanned aircraft will require lawmakers crafting new laws that balance the risks and benefits of drone use in our increasingly futuristic world. In the meantime, if a drone is buzzing above your yard, keep the gun locked up, and call the local authorities if you think you are being harassed.