The verdict of the first known lawsuit involving the use of a firearm against a civilian's unmanned aerial vehicle – UAV, or, as most refer to it, drone – was made public this week, potentially setting a precedent for these kinds of cases. It looks like you pretty much can't shoot somebody else's drone out of the sky in public.
Motherboard spoke with Eric Joe, the owner of the hexacopter that his neighbor shot down with a shotgun last November. Now that the details of the case are available, it seems like a pretty open-and-shut case. The drone was still flying over Joe's family's property when his neighbor shot it down, and the neighbor admitted both in person and via email to having shot the drone down, but declined to pay what Joe claimed the damage was worth. The judge ruled in favor of Joe and awarded him $850 in damages, and while the Motherboard article says criminal charges are still pending, it warns that the FAA's official definition of drones as "aircraft" means that shooting at one could, technically speaking, mean a maximum penalty of a 20-year prison sentence. An attorney with a law firm that Motherboard says "has more experience in drone law than anyone else in the country" said that this case might set a legal precedent going forward:
"Even though it's from small claims court, it supports the proposition that destruction of someone's property is not an appropriate way to respond to the presence of a drone," Brendan Schulman, an attorney at Kramer Levin, told Motherboard. "Even if a drone is causing a nuisance, potentially invading privacy, creating a hazard, or violating some other law, the appropriate way to respond is to call the authorities, not to take self-help measures involving firearms. Notably, the verdict states that the discharge of the firearm was unreasonable regardless of whether the drone was being flown over the shooter's property. I think this case is more about the response to the drone operation than it is an indication of what laws apply to the operation of the drone itself."
In the emails between the two parties in the case, the defendant expressed concerns for his privacy and referred to the drone as "surveillance equipment." It turns out that his neighbor's drone wasn't even equipped with a camera. And even if it was, it was still operating on his own property, so this case is not really a good example of the implications of UAVs on privacy rights.
But there have been cases in which camera-equipped drones have been used to invade other peoples' privacy. So, if you encounter a legitimate issue with a UAV and are reasonable enough to refrain from recklessly shooting a gun in the air, what can you do?
Take legal action
An article at NOLO.com, a website offering legal advice for consumers and small businesses, advises those whose neighbors' drones might be flying over their property to simply talk to the neighbor directly.
However, it is not illegal to fly a drone in public, and most drone enthusiasts will be quick to tell you that. So this approach might not always work.
The NOLO.com article says legal recourse in these cases can include pursuing a "cause of action for private nuisance" based on a noise complaint from the drone; a "cause of action for trespass" if you can provide photos of the drone flying directly above your own property; or a "cause of action for invasion of privacy" if the drone has a camera that has recorded your private activity, which could ultimately culminate in a temporary restraining order against the drone.
However, pursuing legal action might not work for everyone. Some might not know who controls the drone, while others might not be willing to wait and continue to deal with the drone while the case plays out in court.
Of course, you can go primitive, like this episode of Modern Family, in which the family tries and fails to take down an unwelcome UAV with a power washer and a football. I'm sure you could use a giant net of some kind to try to bring the thing down, too.
Or you can go high-tech. In December 2013, hacker Sammy Kamkar released software called "SkyJack," which is designed to scan for drones' wireless signals in the area, disconnect a drone from its operator's signal, and re-direct its connection to the device operating SkyJack. The software works with Linux devices and Raspberry Pi, but was really designed for those who want to fight fire with fire; Kamkar designed SkyJack to work on a drone itself. The idea is that the user can fly a drone with the purpose of detecting other drones in the area, then use SkyJack to direct the Parrot AR.Drone 2 (the only drone for which SkyJack was designed) to bring both drones back to the SkyJack user. You can get more information on SkyJack on Kamkar's website, Github, and in the YouTube video below:
SkyJack seems like it could get you in just as much trouble as shooting a drone down, because at that point you're basically stealing it. So I can't actually advise using it, but if nothing else, SkyJack is a sign of how unclear the legal implications of drones still are. If legal recourse isn't an option and you are unwilling to break the law, it doesn't seem like there's much you can do.