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There’s a Drone Flying Over My House. Can I Shoot It?

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Here’s some news plenty of you will find to be a bummer: Just because a drone happens to be flying over your property, that doesn’t mean you can shoot it down. Sorry.

A Kentucky man found out the hard way there are consequences for terminating a drone with extreme prejudice, no matter how annoying it may be. The man, who claimed the drone was spying on his sunbathing daughter and used a shotgun to terminate its flight, was charged with violating a variety of state laws, including criminal mischief.

Part of the problem in determining what is and isn’t fair protection against drone encroachment is a web of laws and regulations that are inconsistent and sometimes contradictory. Worst of all for those whose personal space has been violated by drones, these laws rarely spell out what, if anything, you can do about it.

The following is our attempt to sort out what your rights are when you’re subject to an unwelcome drone visit. 

So, can I shoot down a drone?

The answer is probably not. For one thing, the Federal Aviation Administration considers a drone to be a civil aircraft, and there’s a law that makes it a federal crime to destroy an aircraft. The penalty is pretty steep, too — up to 20 years in the slammer.

But is it legal for someone to fly a drone over my home?

Yes. Like other aircraft, it’s perfectly within the law for a drone to fly over your property, so long as it is high enough in the air. (We will explain more about that later.)

What about my privacy and property rights?

Zachary Ludens, a lawyer who specializes in aviation and drone law for the firm Carlton Fields Jorden Burt in Miami, said that while some states have trespassing laws that may include low-flying drones, simply shooting them down isn’t an option, at least not immediately. Some states, such as Nevada, prohibit drones from flying less than 250 feet above ground level; even then, shooting the drone isn’t a course of action you can legally pursue.

However there are other actions you can take if a drone trespasses or violates other rights, including bringing suit against the operator or owner of the drone.

This drone is not to be used for target practice. (Fox Business)

Some good sources for information on state-by-state drone laws can be found here and here.

If I can’t shoot the drone down, what can I do?

Ludens suggests you try to find the operator of the drone flying over your property and ask them to stop. “There’s no right to bring a trespassing action the first time,” Ludens explained. “You have to notify the person.”

Drones that are operated commercially (which was apparently the case in Kentucky, where the device was taking real-estate photos) have to be within line-of-sight of the operator. If you feel the drone is trespassing, tell the operator that, and then request they keep the machine out of your airspace. But be aware that you have very limited rights concerning flights over your property. In most states, flying across your property at the appropriate altitude is perfectly legal.

Both Ludens and a spokesperson for the FAA suggested notifying local law enforcement. The FAA spokesperson also said that the agency should be notified if the drone is being operated in a way that poses a risk to others. 

“The FAA maintains the ability to take enforcement action against anyone who operates an unmanned aircraft in a manner that endangers the safety of the national airspace system,” the spokesperson said.

But suppose the drone is a danger to me?

There aren’t many situations in which a drone could be a risk to life or safety, but some exist. For example a Connecticut teen built a drone armed with a handgun that he could fire remotely, but he didn’t threaten anybody. At publication time, the FAA and local police were still investigating the incident.

Perhaps a more serious threat were the drones that flew over wildfires in California on July 17, which prevented firefighting aircraft from dropping water and fire retardant on burning vehicles. In that case, Ludens said, fire or law enforcement personnel might have been justified in shooting them down.

Do I have any recourse?

If a drone is invading your privacy, then there are things you can do, although shooting it down isn’t on the list. (So put down that thirty-aught-six.) If you can spot the person operating the drone — and they refuse to stop what they’re doing — you can certainly call the police. You can also file legal actions against them, which may include a civil suit and/or a criminal complaint in areas where there are laws governing drone use.

To do that, you will likely also need to follow the drone to find out who’s operating it. Just don’t get too aggressive about it. The same teen who built the gun-totin’ drone was assaulted by a beach-goer after he flew another unarmed drone over her at the beach. She was arrested. He wasn’t.

So while you can’t use drone defense as a reason to buy that Purdy shotgun you’ve been lusting after (are you listening, Rand Paul?), you can do something. It may not be as satisfying as blasting the drone out of the sky, but the combination of police and lawyers may provide a more lasting and satisfying solution in the long run.

Wayne Rash is senior columnist for eWEEK and is a longtime writer about aviation and space. He has been a pilot since 1970. He can be reached at wayne@rash.org.