Legality of Drones

SayUncle asks and interesting question, in response to this story about an animal rights drone being brought down by shotgun fire, namely whether you own the airspace. Under common law, the answer was yes; you were regarded as owning, “from the depths to the heavens”. But the advent of air travel changed common law. Now the answer is yes and no, as to whether you own the airspace over your house. There’s a Supreme Court case regarding this, U.S. v. Causby (1946), where a chicken rancher sued the federal government over fighter planes flying low over his property. The ruling held the old common law could not survive in the modern world, but that landowners have the rights to the space over their houses that are essential for your enjoyment of the land.

“if the landowner is to have full enjoyment of the land, he must have exclusive control of the immediate reaches of the enveloping atmosphere. Otherwise buildings could not be erected, trees could not be planted, and even fences could not be run” . . . Thus, a landowner “owns at least as much of the space above the ground as he can occupy or use in connection with the land,” and invasions of that airspace “are in the same category as invasions of the surface.”

As far as the FAA is concerned, objects like RC planes must be operated within line of sight, and not fly over 500 feet. This is federal, so state case law might be different. But the FAA only recently allowed military UAVs to operate in US airspace. There is no corresponding FAA regs for civilian UAVs.

So it would seem that if you have a UAV buzzing around your property operated by animal rights groups, you’re perfectly entitled to shoot it down, exercising your rights as a property holder to end the trespass of an object that’s interfering with your enjoyment of the land.

24 thoughts on “Legality of Drones”

  1. A few years back SHARK or some other loony group tried to fly an RC helicopter over the Wing Pointe pigeon shoot. It was shot down.

  2. By what common or statutory law do you have the right to destroy that property because it’s trespassing?

    (If I park my car on your land, can you demolish it without tort or crime?

    Seems dubious.)

    Now, you can sue for damage or trespass, call the police, definitely – but destruction because of trespass? Not clear at all.

    1. Except if you place your property on my own with the intention of inconveniencing or preventing the use of my property I can in fact forcibly remove it.

      For example if you block my truck into my driveway to prevent me from leaving. I can call and request and officer to remove the vehicle. Which would be the moral polite thing to do if it is an honest mistake. However in this case we have Mens Rea, and there is intent behind your actions. In which case when I push your car out of the way with my bull killer to leave my property you will have no recourse. You were trespassing to begin with and impeding the property owner. You do surrender your rights to your property when you place it someplace without permission of the owner.

      See impounding cars parked in a parking lot without permission. Any damage to the vehicle due to towing is not at cost to the tow company or the property owner, but of the vehicle owner.

      If someone uses a ROV to get into my house can I not destroy it? The solution to this problem is simple. If you don’t want your UAV shot down, don’t trespass and don’t be a dick.

    2. In Pa, if you park your car on my property I can prevent you from access it to leave and I can charge you parking/storage fees. Or, I can have your car removed from my property. Also, if my property is posted as not trespassing or parking, you could be charged with either a misdemeanor or summary offense for ignoring the signage.

    3. Generally, a person being trespassed upon is permitted to use force to stop the trespass. The legal concept is called abatement. States usually have laws about what is and what isn’t legal to do to a parked vehicle, but I doubt they have any such statutes on UAVs. In some circumstances it’s legal to shoot animals intruding on your property, even if they belong to someone else.

      The owners of the UAV could certainly bring suit, claiming their property rights were violated, but I don’t believe they’d have a strong case. What other method can you use to abate the trespass other than bringing it down?

        1. Which is a crime under the current laws and the FCC will fine and arrest you for intentionally causing harmful interference. About the closest way you could get away with it is if they were in one of the regions of the ham band where the public can use it as a secondary operator. Even then you’re going to probably be in trouble and your license may go bye bye.

          Shooting it with a shotgun doesn’t have that outcome.

          1. Even if they are in one of the Ham bands, (and some are used for RC) it’s still willful interference and still a no-no. (not sure of the penalties).

            1. That’s why I said you’d still probably be in trouble. However the one thing that might save your bacon is if you were legitimately doing something and it just so happened to tank the secondary user. IE if it was in the 2.4 GHz range, the moon was up, and you decided to do some EME, that’s their own fault. As the primary user you have priority and WiFi just sounds like noise so how would you know their UAV was operating there?

              You will be in serious crap if it can be proven to be intentional, however when you have priority use and were doing something legitimate, intentional interference is hard to prove.

              There is no question that intentional interference will land you in a world of crap. See my previous comment.

              Even then you’re going to probably be in trouble and your license may go bye bye.

              The only reason I said may, is because if you did the exercise as I posted above. They would have a hard time proving intent of malice.

  3. An honest judge would solve this problem by looking at the airspace floor (which varies but is never lower than 1200 ft) to determine the minimum height of such rights. There would then be some height at which no building could ever occur (say 6000-10K ft) and for urban areas that would be the upper limit of the right (give or take). But I suspect the 1200 ft mark would be place to start in identifying the limit.

    ETA: All heights are AGL or Above Ground Level.

    1. An amended Common Law approach proposed by someone is simply “what you occupy” (and I would extend that to the enjoynment of what you occupy). Using this standard, you should be able to build a building as high as you want, and you own that airspace; similarly, if you dig deep down as much as you want, and own that ground space, but if someone digs deeper (say, via a diagonal drill, or a mine), they aren’t tresspassing on your property, unless it is interfering with what you have done.

  4. Back more than 10 years ago, I had an issue with a neighbors tree growing over my side of the yard. It was hitting the top of my garage. I asked him to cut it back, he didn’t. A lawyer told me I could cut anything hanging over my property/side. So I went out in a bucket truck and cut off all the limbs right at the property line. It was one funny sight! It was like a flat tree on one side. The lawyer kept mentioning aerial trespass laws.

    Like most of you, I looked at the video of the PETA drone. I have my doubts to it’s authenticity. The operator could have just as easily crashed it and damage would have been the same.
    I would think MOST gun guys would not shoot rifles up at a flying object. But shotgun? Still not sure. Besides all that, how would PETA prove it? What if it fell on their property? New owner?

    Who wants to go to a nude beach and get some movie footage?? Sandy Hook, NJ anyone? Sebastian can fly, I will video record.

  5. I would check your understanding of FAA regulations. The FAA makes no distinction between military and civilian unmanned aircraft other than exceptions for hobbyist use within certain size and weight limitations. A 501(C)3, using a drone to observe private property does not fit within the current exceptions….

      1. I do have somewhat of a working knowledge of the FAR based on my duties at work. I don’t think anybody can actually be an expert based on the sheer complexity. Guys at the FAA don’t always know what the regs mean even.

        That being said, the FAA has shut down several private enterprises flying drones recently because they did not fit in the hobbyist exception.

        A private person wants to take their quadcopter out, fly and take pictures for fun, that’s ok. A gov’t agency, corporation or other entity wants to do the same and it’s completely forbidden.

  6. I think the issue of the legality misses the most important point — courtesy.

    Just because you can do something doesn’t mean that it is polite to do so; the antis fail in respect to basic social interactions.

    Everything is just a distraction from that point.

    The antis could have gone to court, the antis could have worked to change the laws, the antis could have reasoned with the sportsmen and kept doing those things.

    They didn’t.

    They deliberately and with malice aforethought tried to disrupt (and apparently succeeded) a legal, private activity.

    Let’s stop focusing on the law here and focus on what decent, respectful people should have done when they have a disagreement with others.

  7. It’s not just a matter of an object flying over your property, the -purpose- of this objects flight was surveillance. They were violating the property and also the property owners privacy.

  8. The post about flying drones with video capability was posted right after one about CNC machining an AR lower. Both are examples of technology making the reasons for laws obsolete.

    What I would like to avoid is the strangulation of new technology by outlawing things instead of behavior.

  9. I’m sure that legalities vary by region, but since the mid 70’s, when I started hunting, it has been illegal to molest, harass, or interfere with a lawful hunt.

    These snot-nosed bastards are lucky that they aren’t carrying a load of double aught buckshot in their posterior.

  10. UAV are a relativly new animal and it is not when it comes to property rights. Someone said had case from 1946. If that is the case then law enforcement couldn’t use planes to check out the bad guys. Check out 1986 decision California v. Ciraolo and Florida v. Riley, decided in 1989. just some more recent cases. Well more recent than 1946. Also if this is a “hobby/model” aircraft here is a snippet of what I found on FAA website.

    “Recreational/Sport Use of Model Airplanes”

    “Model aircraft should be flown below 400 feet above the
    surface to avoid other aircraft in flight. The FAA expects that hobbyists will operate these
    recreational model aircraft within visual line-of-sight.”

    Here is the site

  11. Barron wrote: “one of the regions of the ham band where the public can use it as a secondary operator.”

    [/topic] By “public,” I assume you mean the unlicensed public? Hard to see how that’s Part 15 compliant, or even legit “whitespace” spectrum. If you wanna use the ham bands, get a ham ticket or Keep Out, please.

    [topic] I’m callin’ Bad legal Advice on anyone saying it is okay to shoot down, take over or otherwise mess with someone else’s R/C aircraft. Remember, in the event of a tie, the person who scares the judge most loses. Guy with a shotgun vs. toothless vegan with a radio-controlled plane? Ouch.

    Get a lawyer. Sue, don’t shoot. Call a game warden or a cop.

    (And f’gawrsh sake, please keep on shooting pigeons. Winged vermin!)

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