You may be powerless to stop a drone from hovering over your own yard

The Washington Post – by Andrea Peterson and Matt McFarland

William Merideth had just finished grilling dinner for his family when he saw a drone hovering over his land. So he did what he said any Kentuckian would do — he grabbed his Benelli M1 Super 90 shotgun, took aim and unleashed three rounds of birdshot.

“The only people I’ve heard anything negative from are liberals that don’t want us having guns and people who own drones,” said the truck company owner, now a self-described “drone slayer.” Downing the quadcopter, which had a camera, was a way to assert his right to privacy and property, he said.  

The drone was owned by John Boggs, a hobbyist, who told authorities he was trying to take pictures of the scenery. He argues in a lawsuit filed this month in U.S. District Court in Louisville that Merideth did not have the right to shoot the craft down because the government controls every inch of airspace in America.

For decades, the issue of who controls the nation’s air didn’t matter much to everyday Americans. Planes, after all, typically must stay hundreds of feet above ground while in the air.

But drones that can take off or land almost anywhere — and the tech companies who dream of using them to deliver goods to your front porch — are igniting a debate over who exactly owns the air just above ordinary homes and lawns.

“There is gray area in terms of how far your property rights extend,” said Jeramie Scott, national security counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “It’s going to need to be addressed sooner rather than later as drones are integrated into the national airspace.”

The issue is becoming more urgent as drones are crowding America’s skies: The Consumer Technology Association estimated 700,000 were sold last year.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, every inch above the tip of your grass blades is the government’s jurisdiction. “The FAA is responsible for the safety and management of U.S. airspace from the ground up,” said an agency spokesman, echoing rules laid out on its website.

But common law long held that landowners’ rights went “all the way to Heaven.” And today, it’s clear that they have some rights.

After all, developers and even cities sometimes sell off rights to the air above their buildings. And if a neighbor has a tree limb hanging over your fence, you generally can chop it off.

The rise of air travel initially sparked questions about where those rights end and flyable space begins. The issue reached the Supreme Court during the 1940s in a case called Causby v. United States where a farmer brought a suit against the government over low-flying military planes taking off and landing from a nearby airport. The planes, he said, forced him out of the chicken business — and he wanted compensation.

The Court gave it to him — and said that property owners own “at least as much of the space above the ground as [they] can occupy or use in connection with the land.”

But even then, the justices didn’t clearly define a precise aerial boundary for landowners — leaving a gray area that Boggs is hoping to clear up for the burgeoning drone market.

“This industry is growing quickly — and it’s to some extent being stifled by the legal uncertainty surrounding these issues,” said James Mackler, an attorney at Frost Brown Todd, who represents Boggs.

If tech companies are going to deliver goods to the yards of customers, there will need to be clarity on exactly where a drone can fly. Could a drone delivering a package to your neighbor fly over your yard at 50 feet? Or would it need to descend vertically from hundreds of feet in the air to avoid trespassing on your airspace?

Boggs is asking the court to rule he’s entitled to $1,500 to cover damages to the drone. But more importantly, he wants a judge to decide whether his drone was trespassing on the air over Merideth’s property or if it was flying within the jurisdiction of the federal government.

A complicating factor is that Boggs and Merideth tell different stories about the day in question. Boggs’ suit says the drone was approximately 200 feet above ground, a claim he’s previously said was backed up by video and telegraphy captured by the craft.

But Merideth says it was much closer to his home. And when a local judge dismissed criminal charges against Merideth in October, she relied on multiple eyewitnesses who said the drone was flying below the treeline.

In 2012, Congress tasked the FAA with integrating drones into America’s skies. The FAA is still finalizing these rules, which are expected to be wrapped up by June. Its proposed rules have little to say about property rights, though they recommend that commercial drones cannot be operated over a person not directly involved in the operation. Crafts flown by hobbyists such as Boggs are also not addressed.

Some argue the agency has the legal authority to address the privacy issues raised by drones. But the agency “does not consider privacy to be their role or expertise,” said University of Washington law professor Ryan Calo.

The FAA says it is part of a White House-ordered effort to develop best practices on privacy with other agencies, think-tanks and drone companies. But these talks will not produce hard and fast rules.

For now, everyday homeowners mostly have to depend on local laws to fend of drones. In some cases, homeowners could bring civil cases against the pilots of low flying drones, according to Calo. They may also be able to convince local law enforcement to bring charges against the operators under existing trespass, nuisance, or “peeping Tom” laws.

While the federal government has moved slowly to craft drone rules, 32 states have enacted their own laws or resolutions regarding the crafts, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But the specifics vary across the country. And some states left it to local authorities to judge when drones are trespassing on people’s property.

Merideth says the day that Boggs’ drone — a DJI Phantom with a camera — flew by was actually the third time in 18 months he’d spotted that kind of craft over his neighborhood. He had called the police on previous occasions, he said, but gotten no help.

By the time Boggs’ drone flew over his land — hovering after multiple passes, according to Merideth — he was fed up.

“In my mind it wouldn’t have been any different had he been standing in my backyard with a video camera,” Merideth said.

11 thoughts on “You may be powerless to stop a drone from hovering over your own yard

  1. Some pervert with a drone wants to gander at my daughters, well, you people know me well enough to know I wouldn’t stand for it. Get the 00 Buckshot out, bye, bye drone.

    Although now, with the latest technology and cameras, they can stay out of range of a shotgun but they ain’t gettin’ no horizontal views into the windows of your house.

    1. Hell…. I’m powerless to getting fkd up everyday and enjoying life.
      Let alone powerless to a drone.

      I think I need to work on that powerless fkd up thing.

      Hell if that drone can deliver me a half gallon of vodka while I’m stuck here in the winter without shooting a hellfire missle at me.

      Then I guess I’ll be really powerless.

      1. Damn Flee, you may want to consider that in next year’s planning.

        How far are you “out there” beyond passable roads? Can’t do an emergency snowmobile run?

        1. About a quarter mile to the maintained county road.
          I’ve been digging my way out with my little tractor for the last few days.
          I have a little less than an eighth of a mile to go.
          Then I can take the chains off the truck and go into town.
          Whooohoooo !!

  2. Those battery-powered “toy” drones continue to suffer from short flight times, generally in the ballpark of 10 to 30 minutes. This doesn’t allow for much time to snoop around your house. Generally speaking, the smaller the drone, the shorter its flight time. Let’s hope no major advances in battery technology come along. Currently it’s probably easier and more discreet to spy on someone by simply hiding in their bushes with a pair of binoculars.

    If you need to get rid of an annoying drone, shotguns are always an option, especially if you feel threatened by it in some way. Some kind of net or bolo round could be created specifically for this purpose.

    It might also be possible to blind or damage a typical drone’s camera by shining a laser on it. An extremely bright LED flashlight might also blind the camera every time it “looks” in your direction.

    In the future we may see a greater market for tinting on home windows, just as many people get their car windows tinted. Being able to see out while making it very hard to see in is readily achievable. I’m surprised this isn’t done much more often on house windows, drones or no drones.

      1. Probably, just because smaller shot have a denser pattern and will hit a smaller drone more easily. Also, the smaller drones are likely to be more fragile, so larger projectiles might not be needed.

  3. The fun part would be to use your own drone to catch other drones with a grapple. I’d think one could make quite a collection that way. 🙂

  4. The government thinks it owns the air starting at the tip of my grass blades? Why does that not surprise me? They actually think they own all of our homes and land anyway.

  5. I can’t believe some of the responses, in the article, from obvious lefties. Shoot a drone with a pellet gun? Report it to the police? My, my, my! What a pathetic group they are. Probably squat to pee.

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