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Drone Invasion – Who owns the airspace above your property?

03/19/2018 6:00 AM by

From our neighbor Steve C:

This evening a drone with camera flew onto my property outside my bedroom and hall windows on Oakwood Ave. It’s my understanding that they must be registered with the FAA and adhere to their guidelines. Also, flying into someone’s backyard or filming through a window can get you into legal trouble. There are some existing state laws about trespass and/or peeping tom laws.

Drones!!  Drones everywhere.  They’re no longer just for the military.  Drones range in price from $20 to $3,000+.  They take awesome pictures, can take some amazing videos, and are just plain fun to fly and use.  You can even find drone races!  However, as these high tech devices get more popular it becomes more important than ever to understand your responsibilities as a drone flyer and your rights as a resident.

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In 2015, Aviation Week Network reported that the FAA estimated that as many as one million small drones were sold during the holiday season. To control the flood of flying machines, the FAA had to do something to control this growth so they required recreational drone users to register their aircraft.   This registration went through some bumps in the road. It was first required in 2015, then struck down by the appellate courts, and then reinstated through federal legislation that President Trump signed December 2017 (AOPA Article).  So, bottom line, REGISTER YOUR DRONE.  You can do that here: https://faadronezone.faa.gov/#/

First, the question on everyone’s mind, can I shoot it down (Welcome to America)?

Let’s start with a quick definition: Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) or drones are aircraft without a human pilot aboard. Your Frisbee is not a drone, your quadcopter that’s radio controlled is!

Newsweek magazine reported a case of a teenage girl sunbathing in her backyard when she saw a drone equipped with a camera hovering overhead. Her father got a shotgun and shot it out of the sky. He was arrested and charged with unlawful purpose and criminal mischief. If you get a chance, check it out, it is a great read and one that should give you pause before taking matters into your own hands.  In our minds, it also shows that our laws aren’t quite caught up with current technology.

Another regulation to be aware of is the Aircraft Sabotage statute (Aircraft Sabotage -18 U.S.C. 32) which the FAA has cited in regard to drone shootings.  This statute makes it a federal crime and felony to shoot down or harm a drone and/or a drone operator.  You can read more HERE and HERE  The flip side of the FAA’s statement is that no one, as far as we could tell, has been prosecuted under this statute for actually shooting down a drone.  You’re more likely to get in trouble, like the first case, with local law enforcement.

The Laws: So why do we need to regulate and register these devices? Because of the potential to invade people’s privacy, interfere with large aircraft and, if you watch South Park, cause unnecessary mischief.

Federal: You must register drones that weigh more than .55 pounds and less than 55. “If your drone weighs more than two sticks of butter, you should register it”. Registration is limited to U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents.  If you’re using your drone for commercial uses, then there’s a longer, older paper-based system.

State: In Virginia, it’s not super clear where flying is allowed legally. As a general rule, you may not fly within a 5-mile radius from any airport. More specifically, there are specific regulations against peeping toms:

It is unlawful for any person to knowingly and intentionally cause an electronic device to enter the property of another to secretly or furtively peep or spy or attempt to peep or spy into or through a window, door, or other aperture of any building, structure, or other enclosure occupied or intended for occupancy as a dwelling, whether or not such building, structure or enclosure is permanently situated or transportable and whether or not such occupancy is permanent or temporary; or to do the same, without just cause, upon property owned by him and leaser or rented to another under circumstances that would violate the occupant’s reasonable expectation or privacy. A violation of this section is a Class 1 misdemeanor. The provisions of this section shall not apply to a lawful criminal investigation.

Local: Recently a drone was spotted flying over the space that VCU Medical Center uses to transport critically injured patients. This has led to a push for even more regulations regarding unmanned flights in Virginia.

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Who owns the airspace above private property? Did you ever think to ask yourself this question? Since the time airplanes were invented a century ago, this question has been one that a lot of citizens haven’t had the need to consider.  However, with drones exploding into the zeitgeist, this question is something we should all know the answer to.

(zeit·geist -noun-  the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time.)

Some final thoughts…

Drones are full of cutting-edge technology.  If you’re anything like me (Jacob) you’re constantly amazed at the innovation that surrounds us and this is just one more example.  Drones can be a fun hobby, a tool for artists, and even a vehicle for those with a competitive spirit.  However, it is important, no matter what you’re using your drone for, to use common sense!  Observe local, state, and federal laws while having fun and please, try not to creep out your neighbors.

Drone Responsibly.


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