DRONE FLIGHTS OVER PROPERTY: What Are My Rights?

Brad Jones
Brad Jones

Drone usage has become increasingly popular and is only expected to increase in coming years. Although the vast majority of commercial and recreational drone fliers are responsible rule-followers, there are always a few who will break or bend the rules to the displeasure of their neighbors. General rules dictate that drones (or a UAS/UAV, to the fliers) must be flown within line of sight of the operator, may not be flown over people, may not be flown more than 400 feet above ground level, and may only be flown during daylight hours, among other things.

Complaints about “illegal” drone flights come from property owners who feel their privacy and rights are violated by a drone that enters the airspace above their property. Some of those owners might feel well within their rights to take matters into their own hands and shoot down an encroaching drone. Unfortunately, shooting at any aircraft, drones included, which is in flight is a violation of federal law and may be punished by civil and criminal penalties. Additionally, and certainly of no lesser importance, shooting at crafts in flight is a serious safety risk as any projectile fired can inadvertently strike an innocent bystander or damage property. States are scrambling to enact laws that protect the public from the dangers posed by so-called “illegal” flights, but the technology has far outpaced the speed of lawmakers.

A drone flight believed to be “illegal” may actually conform with the law, even if it seemingly infringes on the rights of another. For example, a drone flying over the home of another person at 150 feet above the ground, during the day, and within the line of sight of the operator, is likely technically legal. Likewise, it might not violate any state property or trespass laws. Simultaneously, it could aggravate the owner of the overflown property to the point they feel their privacy or rights are threatened.

In the example above, the property owner’s best course of action is to notify law enforcement and/or the FAA and let those agencies investigate and act. Notes should be taken about the time, date, location, approximate flight path and direction of flight of the drone, any information about where the drone flight originated, and any information about or description of the drone operator, if available. If the operator can be identified, the situation could be resolved by a calm and non-confrontational discussion with the operator. Never threaten the operator or attempt to destroy a drone, as these actions will almost certainly result in criminal prosecution.

A reasonable balance of property owner rights and drone operator rights are not currently part of the law in NC or SC. Both states are exploring the subject, but it is likely to take years to find a solution, in no small part due to the complexities of federal airspace and state-level land usage laws. NC makes photographic surveillance of a landowner’s property from a drone without consent a crime, as is launching a drone from private property without consent. Nevertheless, these laws alone are not enough to curtail all nuisance drone flights. Landowners with concerns are best advised to record any details possible and report suspicious flights to the authorities. Drone operators and landowners with concerns about the legality of a drone flight are encouraged to contact Black, Slaughter and Black for a consultation.

The author is a licensed attorney in North Carolina and South Carolina, and holds FAA airman certificates for private pilot with instrument rating, Part 107 commercial UAS operations, and ground instructor with advanced and instrument ratings.