Planet Money: "Who Owns the Air?" (is <83 feet really unregulated?)

Planet Money, the fantastic NPR radio show/podcast, did a must-listen show called "Who Owns the Air" on the debate over who has jurisdiction over drones, and at what altitude. It sounds like the "floor" of the FAA jurisdiction is 83 feet, and perhaps even 500 feet. Excerpt from the text summary:

It's a question that goes back to the Middle Ages, to a Latin phrase that translates to "he owns the soil owns up to the heavens." In England, this phrase was the law of the land for centuries, and it worked well when disputes involved simple things like overhanging tree branches and lopsided buildings.

But once hot air balloons and airplanes came into the picture, things got a lot more complicated. In 1926, Congress created what we now call the FAA, and declared that the air above 500 feet is the public domain. But what about the air below that?

Thomas Causby was a chicken farmer in North Carolina who lived near a tiny airport. During World War II, the Army took over the airport, and suddenly big military planes were flying over Causby's chicken coops all the time. The planes scared Causby's chickens. They flew into the walls of the coop and died.

Causby sued the government, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. In the end, the court sided with Causby, ruling that landowners own the sky above their homes up to at least 83 feet.

But the decision still left a gap. If the air above 500 feet is public property, and the air below 83 feet is private property, what about the space in between?

This is the territory that entrepreneurs dreaming of drones have their eyes on.

Cy Brown, for example, wants to use drones to tackle the problem of feral wild pigs. In Louisiana, where Brown lives, feral pigs run around wrecking crops, causing problems for farmers.

Brown's idea was to use drones to track the pigs and then relay their locations to hunters in the fields who could kill the pigs. He tested it out, and it worked. Farmers liked it. Even the U.S. Department of Agriculture wanted to copy it.

But when I called Cy last month to ask if he'd take me hunting, he said no. His drone had been grounded. When I asked why, he referred me to his lawyer.

Cy's lawyer told me that the FAA has been sending out cease-and-desist letters to commercial drone pilots all over the country, threatening big fines for flying little drones. The FAA says that, for safety reasons, it is regulating the airspace between 83 and 500 feet.

Drone pilots are fighting this in court, trying to reclaim that airspace.

Picture from a previous Atlantic piece on this issue, which is also worth reading. 

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Comment by ArileyS on May 31, 2014 at 2:25pm

I'm left scratching my head as to why the reporter keyed in on the 83 feet number.  The Causby family was awarded damages for aircraft that passed between 83 feet and 365 feet above their property, insinuating that they owned the airspace within and below that range, and further insinuating that the FAA's authority does not extend below 365 feet.

Comment by ArileyS on May 31, 2014 at 2:28pm

So the question of where FAA authority ends seems to lie between 365-500ft, not 83-500ft.

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