By Adam Toobin
If 2015 was the year of the drone, 2016 is turning out to be the year of drone regulations. The Federal Aviation Administration has ordered that all drones be registered with the federal government by February of this year and is imposing major fines on operators flying near restricted spaces.
Now, thanks to a lawsuit filed in federal court seeking damages from a Kentucky man who shot down his neighbor’s drone as it allegedly flew over his property, the FAA may receive the authority to regulate even more precisely where it is legal to fly a drone, even over your own property.
Back in July, William Merideth sniped neighbor David Boggs’ drone out of the sky as it flew about 200 feet above his property. Meredith has been cleared of criminal charges for the incident, but now Boggs is claiming that since his flight could not be thought of as trespassing in the traditional sense, he is entitled to damages due to the destruction of his drone.
What makes the case unique is that the federal court will have to wade into an area where there is very little precedent to act as guidance. The FAA, of course, governs the airspace of the United States, a vast and complicated area that sees thousands of major commercial flights every day, but it’s not clear when airspace even begins. Everyone has the right to build a house on their property without informing federal airspace regulators, right?
Well, the FAA told Ars Technica last year that it is “is responsible for the safety and management of U.S. airspace from the ground up,” and the drone operator in the Kentucky case is asserting that “the United States Government has exclusive sovereignty over airspace of the United States.” So, if the airspace over your house belongs to the government, then you don’t have the right to claim that a drone operating there is trespassing on your property, any more than you’d have such a claim against a helicopter pilot flying overhead.
Established case law suggests that owning property guarantees at least the right to use of the area up to 83 feet above ground level, effectively the height of anything you might need to build, and sets the minimum height of a safe mannedflight at 500 feet. While it may seem crazy that above our heads there’s 417 feet of Wild West, before the growth of the consumer drone fleet, the issue just didn’t come up very often.
The ruling in this case could have a significant impact on the future of the sUAS hobby and industry.
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