On February 23rd, Long Island resident Gerard Chasteen allegedly fired his Shotgun three times at a DJI Mavic 2 Zoom flying near his property.
Rather than a neighbourhood menace up to no good, the drone’s operators – Lynn Fodale and Teddy Henn – were volunteers working for local pet-rescue group, Missing Angels Long Island. They were scouring the area for a lost dog when their connection to the drone abruptly cut out.
“Within minutes, Teddy said to me, ‘I think a bird took out our drone,’” Fodale told The New York Post the next day.
The pilots followed the Mavic’s flight path and aimed for the last spot that its GPS had been located. When they arrived they met Chasteen, who admitted to shooting down the drone. As Fodale recalls, the shooter said he had taken action because he didn’t like the drone flying near his home.
“Did you shoot down our drone?” Fodale asked.
“Yeah, you can’t fly over my house,” Chasteen replied.
Suffolk County police were promptly called and have charged Chasteen with third-degree criminal mischief and prohibited use of a weapon.
Whether those charges stand up remains to be seen of course. In recent years drones (and drone pilots) have been provided little protection against gun-related actions of homeowners.
There are a number of misconceptions that enable these actions. The industry needs to tackle them all if it wants to build a more trusting and productive relationship with members of the public. Here are some of the main ones…
Drones are spying on you
Drones do not look very friendly. In fact, most of them perfectly embody our dystopian fears of all-seeing, all-knowing, oppressive 1984-style regimes.
And that association sticks. If most people’s only contact with drones is through negative media attention and sci-fi movies, it’s no surprise that rash conclusions are jumped to when one is spotted in the real world.
But in the vast, vast majority of cases, drones nearby are more likely to be filming the landscape than used for spying.
For starters, a drone’s high-pitched whirring isn’t the most subtle of soundtracks for a secret spying mission. On top of that, the cameras on most drones don’t have the precision and zoom capability to see what you’re up to from hundreds of feet away.
If it’s flying right outside of your window, fair enough. If it’s buzzing past or around your home, it’s almost certainly just a hobbyist taking it for a spin or a commercial pilot on a mission.
Which brings us to misconception number 2…
Drones must be up to no good
From prison deliveries to air traffic disruption, drones have gained a reputation for being used by criminals with malicious intent. We think that reputation is unfair, given the huge number of positive applications across all manner of industries.
And that’s before we get into their life-saving and environmental potential.
You can read more about some of the positives here:
All of which proves that any drone you see is probably on a mission that’s either a.) perfectly innocent or b.) making a positive difference in your local area.
Perhaps it’s assisting with a roof inspection, the maintenance of local cell towers or other vital neighbourhood infrastructure. Or maybe, that drone is helping the search for a missing dog.
If it’s flying near my property, I can shoot it down
Perhaps the most serious misconceptions revolve around what individuals legally can and can’t do when faced with a drone they don’t like the look of. According to the New York Post report, the shooter in the most recent case claimed to be defending the airspace above his home.
We spoke with Jacob Tewes, an attorney at Kutak Rock LLP who specialises in drones and the unique legal challenges faced by commercial drone operators in the United States.
As he explains, “Shooting down a drone is a federal crime because drones are “aircraft” under federal law. 18 U.S.C. § 32. It would also be illegal under general criminal or civil laws in most states.
The law varies from state to state, but using a deadly weapon to bring one down would generally only be legal (i.e. justifiable) if the shooter were acting in defense of self, others, or (possibly) property. In many states, those defenses may only work where the drone itself qualifies as deadly force.”
He then outlined the three key misconceptions that are emboldening drone-shooters: “1. Drones are something other than “aircraft”; 2. Individuals “own” the airspace above their homes; and 3. There are no criminal or civil consequences for shooting down a drone.”
An important point to note is that the airspace above your backyard is not owned by the homeowner. In fact, it falls into the national airspace system and as such is exclusively under the control of the federal government. Technically, drones flying in the national airspace are exclusively subject to federal law, although the operator is subject to both federal law and the relevant state laws.
There have been opportunities to clear up these misconceptions and set precedents in the past, most notably with the Kentucky case from 2015.
“The few cases where a shootdown has occurred have reinforced those misconceptions,” said Tewes. “The most obvious example is William Meredith in Kentucky. As Dronelife previously reported, a judge dismissed the criminal charges against him without any substantive analysis, alluding only to a general right to privacy.
“If she had walked through the legal elements, we might have gotten some useful precedent to try and build a cohesive legal framework around this problem.
As far as I know, the drone’s owner only tried to sue Meredith in federal court for his state law (civil) claim against Meredith but was thrown out on technical grounds: we do not know what would have happened if he had sued in state court, and if the statute of limitations has not run he could still try. Similarly, I am not aware of a single case where a government has brought charges under 18 U.S.C. § 32 against someone who shoots down a drone.”