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.

“I’m an idiot, someone stop me!”

An amateur Phantom II operator (or, perhaps we should say, former operator) did something stupid that could have hurt someone, and now laments the fact that what he was doing isn’t illegal:

The thing is, there are basically zero regulations in the U.S. preventing what I did from happening again. There is no age requirement or learner’s permit necessary to purchase a drone. There are some basic rules in place from the FAA that ban hobbyists from flying over densely populated areas or close to airports, but aside from that, if you stay under 400 feet, you’re good to go.

When it comes to commercial drone flights, on the other hand, the FAA has made them completely illegal in the US. It’s taken years to develop new rules for companies, during which time other countries have forged ahead. And now it’s saying it will miss the deadline set by Congress to get commercial drones flying over American skies in 2015.

This is completely backward. It didn’t really hit me until my own crash, but the FAA is actually focusing its regulation on the wrong group. Companies typically need to carry liability insurance on the machinery they operate. A bad crash would be terrible for a brand, something that will make them more conservative about flights. The people with the least to lose are the casual hobbyist like me.

We think that the writer has a valid point about insurance concerns driving the commercial drone sector. But his call for the nanny state to stop him from acting foolishly is, well, silly. First, his argument assumes that the woman on the bicycle would have been left without a remedy had his careless behavior injured her or her child.

His in-laws probably have homeowner’s insurance. It might have adversely impacted his marriage, but any decent plaintiffs’ lawyer would have immediately looked into that.

And perhaps the writer has his own umbrella policy. He doesn’t say.

But the larger question is, at what point do we call on government to restrict the liberty of others, simply because some people act irresponsibly? We license car drivers, and have laws against reckless driving and drunk driving, but that doesn’t stop cars from being deadly missiles (much more dangerous than a 5-pound drone) in the hands of the wrong person. Requiring licenses for model aircraft operators seems grossly disproportionate to the risk involved.

If we are to remain a free and open society, on some level we have to still count on the virtue of individual citizens as the primary keeper of civic peace. Translated into contemporary parlance:

Don’t be an idiot, and we’ll all get along, just fine.