Future Tense

Maybe Don’t Shoot Down Your Neighbor’s Drone When It’s Not Even Over Your Property


Photo by Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

If there’s one thing we know about Americans, it’s that many of them own guns. So it was pretty inevitable that with more and more small drones zipping around, some would get shot out of the sky. But now a court has ruled that if you shoot a drone out of the sky, you’re liable for damages.

Ars Technica reports that Eric Joe was visiting his parents in Modesto, California, in November 2014, and was flying a hexacopter drone (which he’d built) over their property. After about three and a half minutes, a shot from a 12-gauge shotgun took the drone down. When he went to investigate, Joe saw his parents’ neighbor Brett McBay coming toward him. “I asked: ‘Did you shoot that thing?’ He said, ‘Yeah, did we get it?’ ” Joe said.


McBay said he thought the device was a CIA surveillance drone. When Joe emailed him an itemized list of parts that needed to be replaced on the hexacopter, totalling $700, McBay said he would split the cost. But Joe said he wanted McBay to pay for the damages, and pointed out that the drone’s GPS log showed that it was over Joe’s parents’ property when McBay shot it down.

Eventually Joe filed a case in small claims court in Stanislaus County, and last month the court awarded him $850 in damages. Ars reports that McBay hasn’t paid yet, though, and that Joe is considering further action.

The court decision isn’t unprecedented, but it is part of the current nascent era of drone law. In October 2014, a New Jersey man was arrested after shooting down a neighbor’s drone while it was flying over his  property. Ryan Calo, a robotics and cyberlaw scholar at the University of Washington, told Gigaom at the time, “Generally speaking, tort law frowns on self-help and that includes drones. … You would probably have to be threatened physically, or another person or maybe your property, for you to be able to destroy someone else’s drone without fear of a counterclaim.”

And when Rand Paul told CNN in January that people flying drones over his house should “beware” because he owns a shotgun, Eric Cheng, the director of aerial imaging at drone maker DJI, told VentureBeat, “The law is pretty clear about fining or imprisoning people who shoot at aircraft.”

Laws and law enforcement will evolve as more and more of these specific cases come up, but for now shooting down drones is probably not the most constructive way of expressing opposition.