State lawmakers wrestling with public response to drones
With a patchwork of local rules on unmanned aircraft across the nation, there is bound to be some confusion about what measures can legally be taken when a drone becomes a pest, or even dangerous.
Yet, there is at least one blanket rule nationwide. Homeowners and local police are not allowed to blast one out of the sky.
The question of how far a homeowner or law enforcement can go to stop a pesky drone came up Monday as state lawmakers from across the country, lawyers and a Federal Aviation Administration official discussed the emerging unmanned aircraft system (U.A.S.) technology.
“In the state of Arkansas, we have a lot of shotguns,” Arkansas Rep. Stephen Meeks, a Greenbrier Republican, began. “And this is going to become more and more of an issue. Do I as a landowner if I feel threatened by one of these drones who’s being invasive, does a landowner or property owner have a right to shoot one of these out of the sky, or conversely do law enforcement have a right to shoot one of these out of the sky?”
“UAS is an aircraft. It’s a felony to shoot down an aircraft,” replied Marke “Hoot” Gibson, a retired major general in the U.S. Air Force, who now works on drone policy for the F.A.A. He said, “We can’t go out and take down these vehicles – even we can’t.”
Gibson said the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy have some “limited capability” to take down dangerous drones, and Congress is interested in expanding the government’s authority to protect the public from threats posed by drones.
The retired general said Major League Baseball, the National Football League and other organizations that run large outdoor venues are “very concerned” about the hazards drones can pose, and there is a “rush” on technology to detect and counter them.
The drone discussion took place at a panel organized by the National Conference of State Legislatures, which is meeting at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center this week.
Brendan Schulman, vice president of policy and legal affairs for DJI, the largest manufacturer of civilian drones in the world, said his company equips drones with a system to prevent them from being flown over airports, prisons, and nuclear power plants.
Schulman also said that while it is technically illegal to shoot down a drone, he doesn’t know of any case in which that has been enforced, and self-defense might apply in the circumstance Meeks described. Schulman said the better course would be if the drone’s operator could be identified so that the offended party could talk to the person. The F.A.A. in June established a rule-making committee to “create standards for remotely identifying and tracking unmanned aircraft during operations.”
The F.A.A. bars civilian drone operators from flying their crafts above 400 feet, according to Nevada Assemblyman Elliott Anderson, a Las Vegas Democrat who moderated the panel discussion. The minimum flying height for planes in rural areas is 500 feet aboveground.
Anderson said Nevada passed a “comprehensive law” in 2015 that restricted people from flying drones recklessly, and defined trespassing as flying a drone over someone’s property at 250 feet or less.
Massachusetts lawmakers are considering imposing new regulations on drones, and the city of Newton passed an ordinance that, according to the Newton Tab, requires operators to keep the drone within sight and obtain permission before flying over someone else’s property. According to the paper, Newton drone owner Michael Singer sued the city over the regulation in January, arguing it effectively prohibits commercial drone operation within the city.
Gibson said drones, which have myriad military applications, are the “most fundamental change to aviation in our lifetimes.” Schulman said civilian drone operators want to abide by the rules, citing the roughly 800,000 operators who have registered with the F.A.A.
Sens. Michael Moore, a Millbury Democrat, and Sen. Patrick O’Connor, a Weymouth Republican, have both filed bills to restrict law enforcement’s use of drones, requiring a warrant for police to use the aircraft as an investigatory tool. The Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security held a hearing on the legislation (S 1348, S 1349) in May.
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