For some, drones and where they can and cannot be flown is a contentious issue, and one not without controversy. Take the case of an American chicken farmer way back in 1942, who sued the U.S. government for flying military aircraft on a runway close to his farm; the farmer claimed that the flights were scaring his poultry and damaging his livelihood, and he wanted compensation. Somewhat surprisingly perhaps, his case made it to the Supreme Court in 1946 and as a direct result, the Court set the limits of private airspace: if you’re a property owner then your property rights go all the way up to 83 feet in the air. In fact, to this day, this remains the only clear federal statement of law as to how far above your property should legal ownership end.
While a drone is unmanned, the issue remains the same: should there be more limits and penalties put in place for drone operators who fly above private property, such as nosy neighbours, police enforcement or Amazon’s delivery service?
When privacy issues turn ugly:
In a recent incident, a Kentucky resident took a shotgun and fired at a drone that was flying over his home, destroying it, and back in 2014, a Jersey man did the same thing. Calls have also been made in recent years to the police when innocent civilians fear that drones are being used to spy on them and their property.
In most of these incidents, the claimant would need to provide clear evidence of the fact that a drone is either causing a nuisance close to their private property, or that it is guilty of infringing any privacy and trespassing laws, and that can be extremely difficult to obtain. Not only that, but we all have varying definitions of what determines a nuisance and an invasion of privacy, making it even harder to make a case against drone operators.
What is the FAA’s stance?
Their overall stance is that any regulations to be made regarding air safety, should be made by the FAA alone, but often when drone operators are being accused of breaching privacy rules, this comes under the realm of state and local authority. So, authority is currently divided between the federal government and the states, and no one has the authority to broadly govern and protect an individual or company’s privacy by not allowing drones to fly close to their property.
What is the future for privacy rights and drone use?
If Amazon plan to start delivering packages using drones someday soon (and it’s likely to become a reality sooner rather than later), then it’s highly likely that they will be given the legal right to fly right over people’s property’s, and the same can be said for commercial land surveyors who use cameras to prepare maps.
Currently, the general rule of thumb is that if a drone is flying over your property but is not causing any harm to it, then there can be no cause for a damage claim and you would not have a case for trespassing under most state laws.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of drones to this day is striking a balance between the good that they can do – and the many legitimate purposes they can be used for – and the right to privacy.