About that handgun-firing drone

A knucklehead in Connecticut has caused quite the media firestorm over his video of a semi-automatic handgun being fired from a small drone.  I have received some media inquiries about whether it is legal or not.  The answer is that it depends.

Based on the video, it appears that this occurred on private property, away from any buildings or people.  The FAA does not seem to have a regulation that would prohibit discharging a firearm from a drone under those circumstances.

The closest thing you will find is FAR § 91.13, which prohibits the reckless operation of an aircraft (the FAA relied on this section in the Rafael Pirker case), and § 91.15, which prohibits dropping objects from an aircraft.  But both regulations apply only where the activity poses a danger to life or property.  That does not appear to be the case, here.

The more likely resource for determining the legality of this particular drone would be state law governing the handling and discharge of firearms.  These regulations vary by state, but in general one would look to whether a firearm was discharged in a reckless manner that posed a danger to others, or in a built-up area or an area zoned for housing.  You can review Florida’s law, here.

Does this presage the weaponization of private drones?  I doubt it.  The video seems to vindicate something I wrote back in October:

[A] small drone is unlikely to be a useful weapons platform. As anyone who has fired a gun can attest, the kickback from discharging a firearm would be just as likely to send a small drone tumbling out of the sky as it would be for the drone to hit its intended target.

The video proves the point.  The operator does not have any reasonable semblance of control over the weapon, and at one point he clearly seems to be downrange of the weapon.  That’s a big no-no among gun owners.

Having said that, I could foresee someone developing an “FPV drone paint-ball” war game (patent pending).  Where that would fit with FAA regulations and state firearms law might be a topic for another post.

Drone Sense at the Washington Post

The Washington Post’s Editorial page is one of the last remaining mainstream editorial pages that still seems to have a few adults in charge.  On Sunday, it published a remarkably simple and cogent pronouncement on the state of drone regulations.  Noting the dissonance between regulations over commercial vs. recreational operators, as well as the reports of drones entering sensitive airspace, the editors have a few suggestions:

The FAA should finally release rules governing commercial drone flights shorn of the absurd requirement that operators must have hours of cockpit time in real planes. Commercial drone pilots should have adequate practice on the equipment they are actually using, and they should be up to speed on FAA rules on unmanned aircraft, air traffic control practices and how to deal with bad weather. They don’t need to know how to land a Cessna. If the FAA doesn’t make that clear, Congress should.

Meanwhile, the FAA should also find better ways to keep drones out of sensitive airspace.

The editors point to something that we have frequently suggested, that manufacturers of recreational drones be required to include built-in altitude and geo-fencing restrictions.  Indeed, the editors note that some manufacturers are already doing so.  If the FAA declines to take this common sense approach, then Congress might have to step up and mandate that it do so.


The NTSB Remands the Pirker Case [Updated]

The NTSB has spoken. Short version: The NTSB concludes that the FAA has jurisdiction to regulate the safe operation of model aircraft, and has remanded the Pirker case for findings of fact on whether Pirker operated his RITEWING Zephyr drone in a reckless manner. The full decision is here.

The NTSB begins by defining the scope of its opinion:

At this stage of the proceeding … we decline to address issues beyond the threshold question that produced the decisional order on appeal: Is respondent’s unmanned aircraft system (UAS) an “aircraft” for purposes of § 91.13(a), which prohibits any “person” from “operat[ing] an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another”? We answer that question in the affirmative.

The law judge’s ruling in Pirker’s favor turned on the conclusion that the FAA had never asserted jurisdiction over model aircraft, and that the FAA’s position now would lead to the “risible argument that a flight in the air of, e.g., a paper aircraft, or a toy balsa wood glider, could subject the ‘operator’ to the regulatory provisions of [14 C.F.R. part 91 and] Section 91.13(a).” The NTSB unequivocally rejects that conclusion:

Even if we were to accept the law judge’s characterization of respondent’s aircraft, allegedly used at altitudes up to 1,500 feet AGL for commercial purposes, as a “model aircraft,” the definitions on their face do not exclude even a “model aircraft” from the meaning of “aircraft.” Furthermore, the definitions draw no distinction between whether a device is manned or unmanned. An aircraft is “any” “device” that is “used for flight.” We acknowledge the definitions are as broad as they are clear, but they are clear nonetheless.

From there, the NTSB concludes that the FAA’s interpretation of its jurisdiction as allowing it to prohibit the “reckless” operation of small, unmanned aircraft under Section 91.13(a) is reasonable. The NTSB is not swayed by the voluntary guidelines found in Circular 91-57:

Nothing in Advisory Circular 91-57, on its face, reflects any intent on the part of the FAA to exempt operators of unmanned or “model aircraft” from the prohibition on careless or reckless operation in § 91.13(a). At most, we discern in the advisory circular a recognition on the Administrator’s part that certain provisions of the FARs may not be logically applicable to model aircraft flown for recreational purposes. But nothing in the text of the document disclaims, implicitly or explicitly, the Administrator’s interest in regulating operations of model aircraft that pose a safety hazard. More importantly, the advisory circular puts the reasonable reader on notice of the Administrator’s intent to ensure the safe operation of model aircraft by appropriate means.

Writing at Forbes, Gregory S. McNeal emphasizes that small drone operators are now on notice that they can be fined for reckless operation of any unmanned aircraft.

Asked for comment, Pirker’s attorney, Brendan Schulman, kindly responded:

While we disagree with the decision, today’s NTSB ruling in the Pirker case is narrowly limited to whether unmanned aircraft systems are subject to an aviation safety regulation concerning reckless operation, an issue that the NTSB has said requires further factual investigation before a penalty is imposed. The more significant question of whether the safe operation of drones for business purposes is prohibited by any law was not addressed in the decision, and is currently pending before the D.C. Circuit in other cases being handled by Kramer Levin. We are reviewing the options for our next steps in the Pirker case.

We agree with Mr. Schulman’s assessment. This decision only goes so far as to say that the FAA can prohibit the reckless operation of model aircraft, the FMRA’s Special Rule for Model Aircraft notwithstanding (apparently). It reaches no conclusions on whether Mr. Pirker should be fined. However, if the law judge finds that Pirker operated his aircraft in a reckless manner, he might have no choice but to sustain a fine.

As a practical matter, we would guess that the NTSB was influenced in its thinking by a growing number of press reports – some of which could be taken more seriously than others – about reckless conduct by amateur drone operators. Perhaps the NTSB even read a recent article in which an amateur operator begged for someone to stop him before he hurt somebody. For now, we can only speculate.

UPDATE: Read this for our follow up thoughts.

Self-Defense Against Drones

The use of self-defense against drones has become a hot topic, especially in the wake of the case of a New Jersey man who shot down a drone that was flying over a neighbor’s property.

In a guest column at the ever-valuable Volokh Conspiracy blog, law professor A. Michael Froomkin and his research assistant, Zak Colangelo, present their thoughts on the law of self-defense against drones. They offer a great deal of food for thought, and we recommend reading the whole thing. But while we agree with some of their arguments, we have reservations about others.

Froomkin and Colangelo begin with a general observation about the applicability of self-help doctrines to robots:

[W]hen a person fears for her safety, property, or privacy, the same self-help doctrines that govern other issues should govern a person’s use of self-help against a robot, whether that robot is operating on land, air, or sea. That is, an individual threatened with harm should be able to employ countermeasures that are reasonable in proportion to the harm threatened. The rule shouldn’t be different just because a robot poses the threat. Thus, as a general matter — but subject to some pretty important exceptions — a person who reasonably fears harm from a robot has a right to act to prevent that harm, up to and even in some — but far from all — cases shooting it down.

It is important to note, they point out, that the law treats robots as property. Because the law places a greater value on human life than it does on property, “[a]cts of self-defense that would be unreasonable when threatened by a human will in many cases be reasonable — in an otherwise similar situation — in response to threats from a mere chattel.” However, “[t]he toughest question is the scope of permissible self-help when individuals fear for their privacy rather than for their safety or property….” (emphasis added).

Froomkin and Colangelo point out that, whereas a threat to one’s property is easier to quantify, a threat to one’s privacy is not:

A trespassing, spying drone can do a lot of damage, but privacy harms are hard to monetize, especially ex ante.* That means it is hard to weigh the potential damage against the harm that the self-helper risks doing to the offending chattel. Not only is privacy is hard to value in general, but in this case the victim cannot know in advance how the operator of the drone intends to use the photos, hacked wifi, or whatever the drone may be collecting.

In light of this uncertainty piled on difficult valuation, we argue that the scope of permissible self-help in defending one’s privacy should be quite broad — else privacy will inevitably lack the protection it deserves. There is exigency in that resort to legally administered remedies would be impracticable — the drone will be long gone — and worse, the harm caused by a drone that escapes with intrusive recordings can be substantial and hard to remedy after the fact. Further, it is common for new technology to be seen — reasonably — as risky and dangerous, and until proven otherwise drones are no exception. At least initially, violent self-help will seem, and often may be, reasonable even when the privacy threat is not great, or even extant, at least when the risks of collateral damage are small.

While recognizing that those who operate drones on the periphery of one’s property probably have some valid First Amendment claims, Froomkin and Colangelo “understand why people would be concerned to learn that drones might someday aim telephoto lenses into their bedrooms from the sky.”

Because an average person is likely to be unable to immediately assess a drone’s threat to his or her privacy, they argue that “[t]ort law is likely to be solicitous of the property-owner’s need to make quick decisions under uncertainty. That solicitude will not, however, extend to actions that presented a reasonable risk of danger to third parties, such as shooting into the air in populated areas….” (emphasis added).

We whole-heartedly agree with the latter point regarding actions that present a danger to others, but think that their underlying assumptions are flawed. First, keep in mind that, as we have noted here, it is highly improbable that a civilian drone operating in Class G airspace is going to have any meaningful “spying” capabilities. It might be noisy and bothersome, but a drone is not very effective as a “peeping Tom” device (unless you’re sunbathing nude in your backyard or on your roof, in which case your claim to a reasonable expectation of privacy is probably dubious, at best).

Froomkin and Colangelo suggest that the uncertainty over drone capabilities could be resolved by, first, instituting a blanket ban on weaponized drones in the U.S. We think this is a reasonable suggestion. But, then again, how have blanket bans on weapons worked out in the past? The track record is not so great.

In any event, a small drone is unlikely to be a useful weapons platform. As anyone who has fired a gun can attest, the kickback from discharging a firearm would be just as likely to send a small drone tumbling out of the sky as it would be for the drone to hit its intended target.

Next, they propose that

all mobile robots should be required to carry warning markings, lights, and the equivalent of a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) that would be recorded in a state or national registry…. Although far from perfect, these notices would be calibrated not just to warn of the drone’s presence, but also to say something about its capabilities, such as whether it carries a camera, and whether it is capable of capturing sounds or wifi or other information.

They further suggest that “[s]etting up a licensing regime and national or state-based registries would help connect a malfeasant robot to its owner or user, but no single system is likely to work in all circumstances.”

Froomkin and Colangelo seem to concede that their regime might well be unworkable, due in part to the problem of “cheating.” But we think that their proposal is far too complex, and relies far too much on unworkable regulatory regimes that will create more problems than they are likely to solve.

We propose a much simpler approach. First, we are persuaded that civilian “microdrones” should be regulated as consumer products, like cell phones and lawn mowers. We discussed that in a post on August 30, 2014. Off-the-shelf, consumer product regulations would solve many of the problems mentioned by Froomkin and Colangelo. For example, microdrones could be required to have built-in limitations on range and height. Naturally, they could be prohibited from having any sort of weapons capability.

Regulating microdrones as consumer products would also dispense with the need for a licensing regime. Model aircraft have been operated for generations without the need for mandatory licensing regulations. Maintaining a reasonable line-of-sight range limit for consumer model aircraft would more than adequately address concerns about hazards to public safety.

This sort of approach would remove much of the ambiguity concerning the capabilities of civilian microdrones. To the extent that any ambiguities might still exist, we think that the rules for using self-help against perceived threats from drones should be made abundantly clear.

We first note that we are adamant supporters of the right of self-defense as a fundamental human right. But with that comes an abiding respect for firearms safety and for the property rights of others.  Absent the sort of threat that would give rise to a justifiable use of deadly force under applicable state law, we would never advocate discharging a firearm in a heavily populated area. Froomkin and Colangelo seem to agree.

State legislatures could, if they wished, enact laws clarifying the circumstances in which a person may presume a threat of death or serious bodily harm from a drone, much like some state laws allow one to presume such a threat when an intruder invades one’s home or automobile. But we do not think that extending such a presumption to model aircraft would be a good idea.

The entire discussion might also be academic.

The FAA claims the authority to regulate or even prohibit the use of any flying object operated outdoors, no matter the altitude or distance from an airport, etc. If the FAA’s sweeping claim of jurisdiction is correct, then questions of federal/state preemption are going to necessarily come into play.

Current federal law prohibits the shooting down of any aircraft. Many small drones are already being regulated as “aircraft” by the FAA. Just consider the recent spate of 333 exemptions to the FAA’s “ban” on commercial drones. If one were to shoot down a drone being operated under such an exemption, it would be hard to argue that one had not just committed a federal crime.

But more than that, the FAA claims that the definition of “aircraft” includes model aircraft. Thus, according to the FAA, shooting down a model aircraft should be a federal crime. Until the FAA provides clarity on that, any discussion of whether a drone can be shot down by a civilian, under any circumstances, is unlikely to be useful.

*Lawyer-ese for “before the event.”

An alternative approach to small drone regulations?

Writing at Aviation Today, authors Henry Perritt, Jr. and Eliot O. Sprague make some interesting suggestions for a more practical, alternative approach to FAA regulations for small, line of sight drones (what they call “microdrones”): Treat them as a consumer product, like a cell phone or lawn mower.

They begin with a stunning admission from the FAA:

In May 2014, Jim Williams, head of the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) office, told the Small Unmanned Systems Business Expo that general regulations for microdrones would not be promulgated until after 2020. Congress, in the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act, mandated that such regulations be effective no later than 2015. This much of a delay beyond the congressionally mandated deadline invites a lawsuit telling the FAA to move forward quickly.

The reason it will take so long is that the FAA assumes that it will begin with existing regulations for manned aircraft and adapt them line by line, to the peculiarities of microdrones.

Instead, the authors argue,

the agency should take advantage of the capabilities of microdrone technology to enforce certain limits on flight profiles autonomously. Such an approach would focus FAA energy on defining what limits should be built into drones commercially marketed, relieving it of detailed regulation of airmen and detailed flight rules to be enforced in the conventional way.

Taking a cue from the FCC’s regulation of cell phones, the authors suggest that the FAA require that microdrones have certain limitations and capabilities built into their hardware and software. For example:

The most basic rules to be encoded into microdrones are already agreed on. First, a height limit is necessary to keep microdrones away from the airspace in which manned craft fly most of the time. Under the proposed approach, legal microdrones must have a navigational mechanism – a combination of barometric pressure sensors and GPS navigational systems – that would not permit them to fly above 400 ft. AGL.

Second, microdrones can be flown only within line of sight. In order to keep them there, microdrones must have a built-in radius limit of, say, 1,500 ft. horizontally from the DROP.

As a further prerequisite for certification, microdrones must have a return-to-home feature that could be triggered by the DROP, and which would be automatically triggered by loss of signal. This also might be triggered by an indication that the DROP has become inattentive, kind of like the “dead man control” on railroad locomotives.

Many microdrone operators would probably not be in full agreement on these proposed limitations. We imagine, for instance, that operators would not be happy with the FAA imposing an arbitrary maximum horizontal radius to enforce line of sight. But, on balance, this seems to us like a preferable approach to insuring that both commercial operators and hobbyists are able to use off-the-shelf technology without having to go through the cumbersome process of obtaining traditional FAA certifications.

What do you think?

What’s the hold-up on drone regulations?

Forbes has a wide-ranging article on the FAA’s hold-up on drone regulations, and what it means for commercial innovation. It’s already familiar territory for those of us who follow the issue, but this passage regarding the FAA’s explanation jumped out at us:

So what’s the hold up? A spokesperson for the regulator told Fortune that the agency has made “significant progress toward that goal, even as it dealt with disruptions due to sequestration and a three-week government shutdown.” Then there are technical issues to work through: the spokesperson said, the agency is developing a mechanism through which manned and unmanned aircrafts can communicate to avoid collisions.

“This is an exciting new technology,” the FAA said in statement. “People want to see what it can do—and what they can do with it. Detect and Avoid and Command and Control are two key integration-related research areas that must be addressed before routine beyond-line-of sight operations will be authorized to fly.”

(emphasis added).

By emphasizing beyond-line-of sight operations, the FAA seems to tacitly admit that it has no answer for why it is holding up regulations for line-of-sight (LOS) operations. All that the agency has managed to do thus far is pick a fight over how narrowly it can define LOS. Meanwhile, it goes around playing whack-a-mole with operators who pose no real threat to public safety.

As one interviewee comments, the FAA needs to change to a risk-based approach. Give some leeway for the development of low-altitude operations that can be safely managed without posing a risk to air traffic while, at the same time, technology is being developed for the full integration of beyond-LOS vehicles. The delay is killing potential job growth and investment.

Many drone advocates fear that the ongoing delay will make the U.S a laggard, behind countries like Canada, which issues flying permits in couple of weeks. In 2013, Canada’s airspace regulator issued 945 drone permits—a significant increase compared to 345 issued in 2012. Here in the U.S. the FAA has issued 700-750 authorizations since 2006.

Getting your ass kicked by Canada is never a good sign, but that’s an embarrassing statistic.

Amazon gets backing from UAS association

Amazon Prime Air

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) has given its backing to Amazon’s application for permission to test its Prime Air drone delivery service.

In a letter Tuesday (download PDF), AUVSI president and CEO Michael Toscano urged the U.S. Department of Transportation to grant Amazon an exemption that would allow the online giant to conduct immediate outdoor tests of its commercial drones.

AUVSI points out that allowing Amazon to test will help spur job growth in an industry that promises to employ tens of thousands, at the very least.

The report also contains some interesting details regarding Amazon’s efforts:

According to Amazon, it is currently testing a range of capabilities including agility, flight duration and sense-and-avoid sensors on its eighth and ninth-generation aerial vehicles. All of the tests are being carried out in indoor facilities or at overseas locations and involve battery-driven, rotor-powered, unmanned aerial vehicles weighing less than 55 pounds.

As we have previously noted, it is unfortunate that Amazon is currently being forced to conduct its outdoor tests overseas. We should be developing this knowledge base here, in the U.S.

About those Disney patent applications

Gregory McNeal has written an in-depth article on Forbes discussing the relationship between Disney’s patent applications and the need for the FAA to enact regulations that encourage, not stifle, innovation. The article is informative and well worth reading in full, but I’ll just excerpt a couple of points:

If Disney tried to use drones today, the FAA would immediately order them to cease their operations. That’s because the FAA believes that the commercial use of drones is unlawful (barring some limited exceptions) until such time as the agency promulgates new regulations.

Yes, the FAA’s rules are absurd for a number of reasons, not least of which is that Disney operates on vast areas of private land. Granted, the Disneyland property is surrounded on all sides by the city of Anaheim, but Disney World covers some 47 square miles. Shouldn’t such a large private property owner – especially one that regularly launches fireworks hundreds of feet into the air – be allowed to innovate within certain parameters? Say, below a certain altitude?

Even if the FAA promulgates new regulations, it is not clear that they will allow Disney’s flights. That’s because many believe that the FAA is planning to issue regulations that privilege certain types of drones and drone manufacturers — specifically those drones that have been previously used by the military or that are produced by major aerospace companies.

Government bureaucracies tend to model their rules based on what they know. And what the FAA knows about drones really doesn’t go much beyond what the public knows – i.e., drones that are used for military and intel purposes. Nothing scares the bejesus out of a bureaucrat more than the thought of something he doesn’t understand or, worse, something he can’t control. And private sector innovation threatens to force the FAA to accept the inherent risk in allowing such innovation to flourish.

There is also the problem, as McNeal mentions, of regulatory capture. Big government agencies tend to be part of a revolving door between those who regulate and those who are regulated. Many former bureaucrats become lobbyists for industries they once regulated. Many former leaders of regulated industries become heads of bureaucracies that they once answered to. The results in a feedback loop of money and industry cronyism, as each knows that the health of the other can affect his or her future career.

Seen from this point of view, an innovator like Disney must seem like an interloper, or a misfit. People who have been going through the revolving door just don’t know what to make of it.

Finally, McNeal notes Disney’s safety-consciousness. As someone who once worked at a Disney theme park (I was a monorail driver at Disney World – I won’t mention how long ago), I can personally vouch for how obsessed Disney is with safety. Disney’s corporate culture, how it values its public image, and of course its underwriters, all place excruciating pressures on Disney’s design and operations personnel to give Disney guests an experience that is both memorable and safe.

Disney is an ideal laboratory for the very sort of innovation that the FAA should be encouraging. Let’s hope that the FAA does the right thing.