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Drone inspecting roof for Allstate.
Drone inspecting roof for Allstate. Jessica Leigh © Jessica Leigh Photography

A Drone, a Shotgun, and the Future of Airspace Rights

Sep 25, 2016

Reuters reports that one of the most anticipated court cases at the intersection of drone technology and property rights will get a court venue within a few weeks. In July of last year, Hillview, Kentucky’s William Merideth spotted a drone flying near his property, and he did what any God-fearing American would do—he blew it to smithereens with his shotgun.

It turns out the drone belonged to Merideth’s neighbor, David Boggs, a roofer. Boggs has filed a claim for damages against Merideth in Federal court, claiming in part that the drone was not trespassing. Merideth says it was hovering over his property and his daughter.

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Merideth is unrepentant about his decisive response, telling Reuters that “I was reacting as most homeowners would, protecting their property, their kids.” He has also reportedly taken to referring to himself as the “drone slayer.”

The case seems almost surreal, since “What if someone takes it out with a shotgun?” has so frequently surfaced as a hypothetical in discussions of drone delivery and other applications. Some dismissed those concerns as hyperbolic, but they’ve come true—and legal observers think the outcome of the ensuing case could have serious implications for U.S. drone policy.

(Bonus footage: Drones have also been terminated with extreme prejudice by basketballs, t-shirts, and a spear, though no landmark legal cases seem to have emerged from those incidents.)

Merideth, who comes across as much more level-headed than you might expect, told Reuters that he hopes “that laws can be put into place to protect not just the home owner but the individual who owns the drone. They have rights too. It is a huge gray area and for now nobody knows what they are allowed to do.”

In a hearing last year, a Kentucky District Court Judge dismissed criminal charges against Merideth, saying he had a right to shoot at the aircraft. Boggs then pursued a civil case.

For more on drone regulation, watch our video.

There is currently little clarity about airspace usage rights under 400 feet, the FAA’s altitude limit for small-drone operators. Though historically, the air above a property was often considered to be part of that property, the U.S. declared anything higher than 500 feet public airspace in the 1950s. Those regulations were triggered in part by the 1946 Supreme Court decision in United States v. Causby, in which a chicken farmer sued the government to limit military flights over his property.

The “drone slayer” case could lead to a reconsideration of that standard, or it could reaffirm it. If private property owners retain the right to limit drone access to their airspace—including, perhaps, via shotgun—it would represent a significant wrinkle for many of the most ambitious plans for putting drones to work.

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