Man Shoots Down Drone, Lawyers Scratch Their Heads

Is it wrong to shoot a robo-trespasser?

Johnny Dronehunter

A still from "Johnny Dronehunter," an ad for shotgun silencer maker SilencerCo. In the ad, the protagonist shoots down a bunch of drones with a shotgun like so many clay pigeons.SilencerCo

Shooting down a small drone is hard. But determining whether people should be allowed to do so may prove more difficult still. A man in New Jersey fired a shotgun at his neighbor's drone, and as the quadcopter crashed to the ground, the incident raised new legal challenges about when and if it's okay to shoot a robot.

Police arrested the New Jersey man, charging him with "Possession of a Weapon for an Unlawful Purpose and Criminal Mischief". In this case, courts might find that, by firing the shotgun at the drone, the man is guilty of destruction of property. The use of force is often only legally permissible to prevent a physical threat, and a wandering drone, like a trespassing cow, is inconvenient but not an imminent danger.

Courts might rule that a trespass by drone is unlike a trespass by a pet. Drones can carry cameras, so a drone flying into a backyard isn't just trespassing, it's a threat to privacy. It's also possible to put a weapon on a small drone and attack someone, even if it hasn't happened yet. If a person shot down a drone because they believed themselves to be in danger (or actually were in danger; state laws differ), and not just because it was annoying them, then it's possible that self-defense is a valid justification.

The law is unclear here, and there isn’t a lot of direct precedent for people shooting down a flying camera robot, which means the future of drone law could hinge on one annoyed New Jersey man and a shotgun.