According to the FAA, as of January 2018 there are over 1 million registered drones (combined commercial and recreational) in the United States. If you are in the business of selling drones, like Chinese drone maker DJI (who currently controls 70% of worldwide small drone sales), this is certainly cause for vigorous celebration. Conversely, if you are the type of person that thinks you not only own your home and property, but all of the sky directly above it, this sudden increase in drone ownership might be cause for both concern and anguish. As it turns out, a property owner only legally controls the amount of sky above their property as they can reasonably use. In 1946, United States v. Causby ruled that “if the landowner is to have full enjoyment of the land, he must have exclusive control of the immediate reaches of the enveloping atmosphere”. What this means is the National Airspace above your property is a public highway for air transport (and drones) controlled solely by the FAA in the U.S. However, if low flying aircraft are making your chickens cease laying eggs or cows stop producing milk, your property rights have been diminished. What this also means is a drone briefly flying 200 feet above your house, taking photos of of your neighbors real estate listing in the middle of the day, is causing you no more harm than that same neighbor mowing his lawn.
One of the more enjoyable things about flying our early drones was the guaranteed look of fascination on the faces of spectators who had never seen anything like our custom-built, one-of-a-kind flying machines. As a matter of fact, for the first 10 years flying drones all across the U.S., not once did anyone ever have anything but positive things to say about what we were doing. I never got tired of hearing people say “this is so cool – did you build this?” In retrospect there were two reasons for this positive reaction – a) we only flew where we were asked to fly by approval of the property owner and, b) we only flew where we knew we would not be intruding on anyone’s reasonable expectation of privacy, peace & quiet and most important of all, safety. In other words we always tried to apply the often uncommon trait of common sense. If you have been following closely up to this point then it should be painfully clear that this is the point where the train flies off the tracks. With so much of the population owning/flying drones, there is bound to be a certain representative portion that either don’t know or don’t care about considerate, thoughtful and safe use of their new toy.
Even though I am someone who makes their full-time living operating a drone based business, I clearly understand both sides of this issue, and see it quickly coming to a boil. On one hand there are countless, hugely beneficial uses for drones in areas such as firefighting, search/rescue/lifesaving and industrial inspections and safety. On the other hand, nobody wants to see a drone collide with a passenger aircraft or crash into an innocent bystander at a public gathering.
I am hearing more and more complaints by commercial drone operators who are being aggressively confronted by property owners while out working on commercial projects. With the proper demeanor, these confrontations can usually be assuaged by kindly explaining and showing the drones non-nefarious purpose. It is very common for a drone to fly over neighboring adjacent properties while filming real estate for example. This brings me to my first major misconception regarding drones. If you see a drone flying over your property, you have every right to shoot it down. Not only is it just a bad idea (and usually illegal) to discharge a weapon into the air, if by some miracle you hit the drone, causing it to crash, you are now legally responsible for damaging someone else’s property. If the person flying the drone is a working licensed commercial drone pilot, you have now shot down a registered commercial aircraft which is a felony. On top of that, if you harass a licensed commercial pilot while they are flying, this is also a violation of Federal safety regulations (14 CFR 91.11 – Prohibition on interference with crewmembers). So what to do if a drone appears to be loitering outside your bedroom window or flying directly over your backyard BBQ? Call the police and make a complaint. There are very strict rules against flying directly over people in the FAA commercial drone rules and these pilots risk losing their license for violations. Sadly this is not so for the neighbor down the street who just returned from Best Buy with their shiny new drone. The rules for recreational use are quite vague, and worse, not enforced. However, the police do have the option to charge a drone operator with reckless endangerment should the situation warrant it.
Just yesterday my wife and I took advantage of the unseasonably warm winter day to take our young grandsons to the neighborhood park to play. Not long after, a middle aged man arrived with a DJI Phantom Drone and started flying it very low, directly over all the children on the playground equipment. After a short moment of disbelief and head shaking I calming walked over to the gentlemen and explained why this was a very bad idea. No apology was offered. Just a bothered look and something along the lines of “I was just wanting to try it out”. With a million drones sold all across the country, this type of event is playing out at an ever increasing rate. Since it is widely recognized that licensed drone operators are not the cause of these types of negative issues, I am comfortable that our ability to use drones for the good of industry and society will continue, mostly unabated. I don’t see the same bright future however for recreational drone owners unfortunately.
I predict that the rapid increase in both commercial and recreational drone sales will start to slow now because of these stated issues and others. Many of the now 70,000 licensed commercial drone operators are learning that it isn’t so easy to make a living flying the same exact drone that just about anyone else can buy and operate. Many recreational drone owners are experiencing buyers remorse because every day more and more areas are prohibiting drone use because of bad apples like my new friend at the local park, greatly limiting available spaces where they can fly. In time all of these issues will reach some quasi-stable equilibrium point. Where this point eventually lands is entirely up to the drone owners who lack consideration and common sense and the lawmakers who are forced to deal with the results of their ill-advised actions.