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Can you shoot a drone?

6 Oct , 2014  | by:

Drones are in the news. Or more accurately, their pilots and the people annoyed by them. The French Local has a story about an Israeli tourist flying a drone over the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris:

“The 24-year-old tourist had launched the drone, equipped with a Go-Pro camera, above the famous Gothic church on Wednesday morning, and sent it hovering over the historic Hotel Dieu hospital and a police station, a police source told AFP.”

The French police arrested him and made him spend the night in jail. The Israeli tourist was also given a hefty fine for “operating an aircraft non-compliant with safety laws.”

Another drone-story takes place not in a public space, but in the privacy of someone’s backyard. CBS Philadelphia reports about a New Jersey man being accused of shooting down his neighbor’s drone.

The pilot was taking aerial photographs of his friend’s under-construction home until shotgun shots took down his drone. The police arrested the shooter:

“After an investigation, police say they determined 32-year-old Russell J. Percenti allegedly fired the shots that brought down the drone. Percenti was arrested and charged with Possession of a Weapon for an Unlawful Purpose and Criminal Mischief.”

This incident raises the question under what circumstances you can shoot someone else’s drone. With drones, in particular attacks on drones, being such a new phenomenon, it is hard to tell what the current stance of the law is toward shooting them from the air. There are of course the property rights of the drone owner, but also the property rights of the owner of the land over which the drone flies. Drones can be equipped with cameras, which bring privacy rights into the equation. Furthermore there can be national or local public law rules that specifically prohibit, limit, or allow the use of drones. Flying drones can be dangerous and put other people’s health and property at risk, which could also make it a matter of self-defense. Rapper Kanye West – who once wrongly compared himself to the inventor Steve Jobs – asks:

“Wouldn’t you like to just teach your daughter how to swim without a drone flying? What happens if a drone falls right next to her? Would it electrocute her?

Gigaom has a nice article out dealing with some of these issues from an U.S law perspective. In it, expert Ryan Calo has his say:

“Generally speaking, tort law frowns on self-help and that includes drones,” says Ryan Calo, a robotics and cyber-law scholar at the University of Washington. “You would probably have to be threatened physically, or another person or maybe your property, for you to be able to destroy someone else’s drone without fear of a counterclaim.”

By “counterclaim,” Calo means that the drone owner could turn around and sue whoever destroys his device, many of which cost over $1,000. In this sense, the law is the same as what applies when a car or a cow trespasses on your land – you can remove the car or cow (or whatever) and bill the owner for your trouble, but you can’t simply destroy the invading article.

Dutch private law professor Egbert Koops recently published (paywalled) an article arguing that under Dutch law it could be legal to take down your neighbor’s drone flying above your property after a warning. He argues that the drone should be treated as an overhanging tree branche that can be removed without a court order.

With Amazon and Google testing out the delivery of goods by drones, a sky filled with drones is no longer a science fiction scenario. So, can you take another’s drone down? There is always a level of uncertainty one has to deal with when answering legal questions. In particular when a legal question involves a technology that enables new forms of social and economic behavior, giving a clear-cut answer is difficult. And of course, the specific facts and circumstances of a case need to be taken into account. In that regard, we will just have to wait and see what legislators will come up with, and what courts will decide. However, if you happen to shoot a drone in the meantime, know that none other than U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor seems to have at least some sympathy for you:

“There are drones flying over the air randomly that are recording everything that’s happening on what we consider our private property. That type of technology has to stimulate us to think about what is it that we cherish in privacy and how far we want to protect it and from whom. Because people think that it should be protected just against government intrusion, but I don’t like the fact that someone I don’t know…can pick up, if they’re a private citizen, one of these drones and fly it over my property.”

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