Flying Within the Confines of the Law

As drones grow in popularity, so do the legal questions surrounding their use.

Drone, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV)—where can they fly them and how can they be used?

Landowners wonder what their rights are and what they can do about private property infringement.

Tiffany Dowell Lashmet, ag law specialist for Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, has studied the issue and says there are several issues surrounding the use of drones in the United States.

First, they cannot be flown for commercial use yet. Owners may only fly them for hobby or recreational use at this time.

“The FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] is working on that,” Lashmet explains. “They’re developing regulations that are going to govern the use of drones and allow them to be used commercially.”

The FAA is expected to release rules for commercial use this June.

Second, all drones must be registered with the FAA.

“This is kind of a new law that just came about before Christmas,” Lashmet said. “If you got a drone after Dec. 21, 2015, it actually has to be registered before you fly it. If you had a drone before that time, then you’ve got to register it before the end of February.”

Registration is $5 and can be completed on the FAA’s website.

Third, there’s a legal gray area concerning the use of drones over private property.

“The problem is the law is not clear,” Lashmet said. “The way the law works is we know there are some heights above which it’s not considered private property. It’s considered like an air traffic highway.”

The problem is, according to Lashmet, no one really knows where the magic line between private property space and space that is considered open for air traffic.

“What I’m telling people is if you want to fly your drone, and you’re going to fly it over somebody else’s property, you want to be high enough that you’re not going to get yourself in trouble with a trespass claim,” Lashmet said.

How high is high enough? No one really knows.

“The best thing we can do is use common sense,” Lashmet said.

One of the most frequently asked questions in Texas regarding drone use is, “Can I shoot down a drone over my property?”

The short answer, according to Lashmet, is it’s best not to.

“We don’t really know exactly how the law regarding trespass is going to work. We don’t know how drones are going to be treated,”
Lashmet said. “Don’t try to take the law into your own hands.”

There are civil claims like trespass and nuisance that can be brought against a drone that is flying over private property.

“There’s actually a statute in Texas that deals with drones and privacy rights. That statute says that drones can’t be used to conduct surveillance against another person or their property,” Lashmet said. “Under that statute, people could actually bring a lawsuit and seek to collect damages or there can be criminal prosecution for the drone user.”

In Texas, there are 21 lawful drone uses spelled out in statute.

The trouble with shooting down a drone is you never know if the drone is flying legally or not. So it’s best not to shoot them down.

“We want to be careful. I understand the importance of private property rights, and there are definitely some legal ways to protect that, but you don’t want to be the person who ends up in trouble for bringing a drone out of the sky and the next thing you know, you’re facing litigation or criminal charges,” Lashmet said. “Drones are regulated by the FAA, and what we don’t want is for somebody to be charged with shooting down an aircraft and the kind of repercussions that can come with that.”

While the law is still unclear on drone use, Lashmet encourages drone users to look over the proposed FAA regulations for drone use and the FAA’s rules for hobby aircraft.

“Those include things like don’t fly over 400 feet, don’t fly near an airport and that kind of thing. So people need to be aware of those,” Lashmet said.

Lashmet is the author of the Texas Agriculture Law Blog on the Texas A&M AgriLife website, She continues to update the blog with legal information surrounding the use of drones.

Source: Jessica Domel, Texas Ag Daily

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