With FAA Drone Safety Day coming up, and the massive environmental contributions drones are making, I wanted to share an important safety tip. While it may be tempting to throw things at or even shoot a drone that you feel is bothering you or trespassing, it’s just not a good idea. At best, you risk going to prison. At worst, someone could be seriously hurt or killed.
Reason #1: It’s Probably Not What You Think
I’ve taken on a number of commercial drone projects, including everything from pictures of homes for sale to massive government construction projects. Whether you’re just getting pictures of a house or pictures of a government facility, sometimes people don’t get the word that a drone will be flying nearby and assume the worst.
On several occasions, I’ve been threatened by a homeowner while taking real estate photos. Many people have an inflated ego, and think someone would want to spy on them. They’re not a celebrity or anything, but armed with a sense of certainty that they were the photographic subject, they run out to find the weirdo that’s spying on them. Often, they find out that their neighbor is having photos done and chill out, then go back inside and get back to whatever it is they were afraid they’d be seen doing (usually watching TV and having a beer or three). Occasionally, a particularly drunk or stupid person isn’t stopped until someone helps them to see the error of their ways (usually verbally, occasionally otherwise).
In another case, I was taking pictures of a sewage treatment plant and the operators neglected to tell their security guards that photos would be happening. I saw one guard draw a gun and then reholster it (that move saved his job), but then both guards started trying to throw rocks at the drone. I flew to a safe distance immediately and called the facility’s boss to let him know what happened, and it all got sorted out. It turns out that the guards normally on duty at that time had the day off, and nobody told the people who were covering the shift about it.
I’ve had a few other run-ins with people who should have known what was going on and didn’t, and even got a personal apology from a governor’s aide on one particularly stupid occasion involving prison guards, but the point of this article isn’t to tell funny stories as much as to make an important point:
If you see a quadcopter, never assume that someone is doing anything bad with it. It could just be that the neighbors forgot to tell you their home is for sale, or that your boss hired pictures of your workplace. It’s perfectly cool and almost always safe to go see what’s going on, but it’s only rarely going to be something worth fighting over.
Reason #2: It’s A Felony
If there’s one thing that has been made clear by court cases and subsequent laws/regulations, it’s that drones are aircraft when it comes to the law. Obviously they’re not an airliner or a helicopter with people onboard who could be injured or killed, but there’s no legal distinction between a 747 and a DJI Mavic Mini in many laws on the books.
One such law is “18 U.S. Code § 32 – Destruction of aircraft or aircraft facilities”. You can read the law here, but here are a couple prohibited things it describes:
“sets fire to, damages, destroys, disables, or wrecks any aircraft in the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States or any civil aircraft used, operated, or employed in interstate, overseas, or foreign air commerce”
“interferes with or disables, with intent to endanger the safety of any person or with a reckless disregard for the safety of human life, anyone engaged in the authorized operation of such aircraft or any air navigation facility aiding in the navigation of any such aircraft”
Doing either of these things (among other similar things) can earn you up to 20 years in prison. It’s doubtful that you’d get that full 20 years for busting a quadcopter, but getting probation or a lesser sentence probably still means you get a felony on your record.
Even if you only threaten to damage a drone or harm its operator, the law also says:
“Whoever willfully imparts or conveys any threat to do an act which would violate any of paragraphs (1) through (6) of subsection (a) or any of paragraphs (1) through (3) of subsection (b) of this section, with an apparent determination and will to carry the threat into execution shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.”
So, don’t do those things and don’t scream at anybody that you’re going to do them. If the cops come out, you could be in for some serious problems. If you threatened to do either of them with a gun, you’ll probably lose your gun rights when you get charged with that felony and then permanently lose them if you’re convicted.
Reason #3: People Could Get Hurt or Killed
Even if it wasn’t against federal law to take a drone down, it’s still a terrible idea.
As a firearms instructor, I’d definitely recommend against using a gun against a drone. If you’re firing a rifle or pistol, what goes up must come down. A bullet coming back down won’t have its muzzle velocity, but it will still be going fast enough to hurt or kill somebody. So, definitely don’t do that.
Even if you use something like a shotgun, where the risk to people is minimized, there’s a good chance you only damage the drone and don’t completely take it out of the sky. An out of control drone could fly off anywhere and crash into anything or anyone. And, because you’re the moron who winged it and sent it off to hurt people, it’s you who will have to pay for everything that happens. If someone gets hurt, you could also end up with more criminal charges.
Even using something like a rock or stick to knock a drone down is still a bad idea. Just like the shotgun, partial damage to the craft could send it spinning out of control and cause injury and/or property damage you don’t want to be responsible for.
If nothing else matters to you, keep in mind that the person you harm by damaging a drone could very well be you. Even the most selfish and egotistical people don’t want to be injured.
Featured image by DJI.
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