Man takes drone out for a sunset flight, drone gets shot down

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Enlarge / Brad Jones’ DJI Inspire 2, before its final flight.
Brad Jones

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dismissed a lawsuit filed against William Merideth, the Kentucky man who shot down a drone that Merideth believed was flying over his own property in 2015.

However, the Federal Aviation Administration considers drones to be aircraft—and under federal law, shooting at aircraft is a crime.

“An aircraft is an aircraft,” Rocky Davidson, of the FAA’s Nashville Flights Standards District Office, told Ars. “We have the same rules and regulations for shooting a regular aircraft.”

However, to date, no prosecutions have been brought against those who shoot down drones.

“It would seem that, in theory, you could prosecute an individual for destroying a drone.” That’s according to Ryan Calo, a law professor and drone expert at the University of Washington. “That seems a rather draconian approach, so I’m not surprised the FAA has not pursued it. This is a flexible enough statute that they could bring a case.”

While some on the ground may feel that their “airspace” has been invaded if a drone flies in or near their property, American law does not yet recognize the concept of aerial trespass. In fact, as the consumer drone age has taken flight, legal scholars have wondered about this exact situation. If a drone flies over private property, is it trespassing?

The short answer is that American courts have not addressed the question adequately. The best case law on the issue dates back to 1946, long before inexpensive consumer drones were technically feasible. That year, the Supreme Court ruled in a case known as United States v. Causby that a farmer in North Carolina could assert property rights up to at least up to 83 feet, and perhaps further. But he could not assert property rights indefinitely.

As the Supreme Court ruled at the time: “We need not determine at this time what those precise limits are.”

“If it’s a crime, I want it to be prosecuted,” said Jones. “If it’s not prosecuted, then what’s to keep them from doing it?”

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