If a Drone Comes Into Your Backyard, Are You Within Your Rights to Shoot It?

Quadcopters can be a lot of fun, but most people don't enjoy seeing a camera-equipped drone hovering above their backyard.EXPAND
Quadcopters can be a lot of fun, but most people don't enjoy seeing a camera-equipped drone hovering above their backyard.

Recently I was interviewing a local artist in his backyard, which was surrounded by an effectively tall privacy fence, when we were interrupted by a high-pitched whirring sound. "Look, it's a drone," said my host, and sure enough, hovering over the fence line about 70 feet in the air was a quadcopter like many of the ones that have been appearing in stores over the past few years. The small craft bobbed in the air for several minutes, and the feeling of being watched was inescapable.

We probably were being watched, since many of the consumer-market drones come equipped with video cameras these days. Why else would a remote-control aircraft hover above a group of people for several minutes at a time? The experience was jarring, and while I knew other folks have expressed privacy concerns over the use of drones (more accurately called UAVs, or "unmanned aerial vehicles"), it was my first personal experience with them.

A few weeks later, a close friend of mine became angered when she discovered someone in her neighborhood was flying a quadcopter over people's yards, including hers. Like me, she expressed frustration with the feeling of being spied upon — when a small unmanned vehicle flies into an area you consider off-limits to prying eyes, it tends to leave you with an unpleasant, lingering feeling about the experience.

So what recourse do people have if they feel someone's recreational use of a UAV is threatening their piece of mind and privacy? That's where things get a little murky. Some people hate the idea of being watched so much that one small Colorado town voted on whether or not it would offer hunting licenses to residents wanting to shoot government drones out of the sky, but that was a largely tongue-in-cheek move, and "drone hunting" would be completely illegal anyway. So even in Texas, it's really not a good idea to go reaching for a shotgun to blast someone's UAV out of the sky, as tempting as the idea might be. Discharging a firearm in such a way inside a city or populated area would be irresponsible and would most likely land the shooter in serious legal trouble.

There are other tactics people have used to disable drones, but they also have their own set of problems. It's possible to buy or build a device that can jam radio frequencies or GPS signals, and the most common consumer-grade UAVs depend on those to fly under any sort of control. So yes, someone with a good jamming device could conceivably drop a neighbor's spying drone out of the sky like a dying bird. The problem is that it's totally illegal to jam radio and GPS signals, since that could also disrupt cell phone communication, police radio, someone's Wi-Fi and other legitimate uses of those frequencies. There are services that provide "Geo fencing" that keep drones relying on GPS from flying over blocked locations. This is handy for keeping drones from flying through places like airports or other sensitive areas, and people can pay a service to add their property to a GPS-blocked list. However, that's of limited use in preserving anyone's privacy, because it won't stop a person from flying his UAV using his own line of sight, and many consumer-level drones don't need GPS to operate.

Unfortunately, that means that for now anyway, our best defense against the potentially prying eyes of a camera-equipped drone is legislation, and that has been a somewhat piecemeal approach, with different states enacting their own laws. As of late last year, the Federal Aviation Administration requires all owners of drones weighing between 0.55 and 55 pounds to register their UAVs online, and has a set of guidelines that the agency expects consumers to abide by, which include keeping to altitudes less than 400 feet and other safety rules. For the purposes of privacy, those guidelines include not conducting surveillance or photographing people in areas where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy without getting those people's permission.

Keeping some creep with a drone from filming in the neighborhood might be difficult, but there are plenty of laws already in place that could help people who don't want to be spied upon. For instance, Texas has laws against "Peeping Tom"-type activities, and a person could call the cops if he thinks someone is trying to film him or her through a window or in a private area of the person's property.

As usual, taking the law into our own hands is not a great strategy. The woman in the above video was convicted on assault charges. Drone laws will likely change as technology and shifts in public opinion continue to evolve. While the temptation to shoot a drone out of the sky might be strong, it's definitely a good idea to exercise some restraint. And people can always call the police if they feel threatened and let law enforcement officers sort the whole situation out.  


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