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    Shooting at Federal Drones Is Neither Legal Nor Smart

    Written by

    Derek Mead


    This segment about drone hunting from a local ABC affiliate is wonderful

    Earlier this year, the small Colorado town of Deer Trail made national news when resident Philip Steel called for a town-wide vote on issuing hunting licenses for federal drones. The vote on the ordinance, which Steel wrote despite having never seen a drone, was supposed to happen yesterday, but was postponed after a protest pushed the ordinance to a district court, which will review whether or not it's legal.

    Steel's argument pretty straightforward: If a drone's spying on you illegally, you should be able to shoot it down, shouldn't you? "What has me fired up is it's trespassing," he told CNN. "It doesn't belong there. Yes, it's privacy. But that's only one part of it. Who's going to be flying these drones?"

    That last question is a valid one, and one which we're trying to figureo out for ourselves. But seriously, are we ever going to see an open season on drones? It's a question we've all been waiting months for, and now the vote on Steel's ordinance won't come until at least April 2014, according to the Daily Beast. That's a long time to wait, but thankfully we can reasonably predict the outcome now—and it doesn't even require a Ouija board.

    The first question is an important one: Are you even going to see a drone to shoot? There's no doubt that domestic drone use is becoming increasingly popular in the federal government, which is a legitimate privacy concern. In fact, federal agencies are using drones for tactical and surveillance purposes more often than anyone thought. The FAA's drone roadmap is crucial to figuring out the civilian market, but right now, no one's totally sure where all the government drones are flying.

    But for the individual, seeing a federal drone in hunting range would be a shock. FAA drone regulations set to go into place in September 2015 will limit the use of small drones—the kind you might actually be able to shoot down—and unless you're already the subject of an investigation, the odds are currently infinitesmal that you'd see a federal quadcopter flying close enough to shoot down.

    But let's assume drones start showing up everywhere. What in the world are you going to shoot a small drone down with? Quadcopters are agile, tiny little flying machines, and while we haven't starting hunting machines yet, there is an animal analog: waterfowl, which Americans successfully shoot all the time. 

    Duck hunting requires a shotgun, which fires steel pellets of various size and number. As we've learned in video games and movies, the spread of that shot makes things easier to hit, but at the expense of range. A Ducks Unlimited beginner's guide suggests a "reasonable" duck hunting range is 35 yards or less, and while I'm sure people can shoot farther than that—or at least claim to—we'll use that figure for now.

    Future skies are going to be crowded, according to this NASA diagram. That doesn't mean you should shoot everything down

    An effective range of 105 feet isn't much, even if a drone's in your backyard. Even hobbyist drones have ceilings a few times that, and unless you're shooting down a drone hovering outside your window, it's going to be a tall order. Until people have access to anti-aircraft systems that no one knows about, your best bet is actually a laser, and even that's a long shot.

    Okay, so imagine drones are everywhere, and they're easy enough to shoot. Can Steel's ordinance, which calls for a bounty of $25 for every small drone piece and $100 for each large drone wreckage citizens can bring in, ever be legal? 

    Steel's ordinance specifically targets federal drones. Many people really don't like the idea of federal drones, which perhaps is why some of us secretly cheer Steel on. But somewhere in there a simple message got lost: a federal drone would be federal property, and last time I checked, the government doesn't look kindly upon private citizens shooting up its stuff, even if a local government authorizes it.

    Over the summer the FAA said that prosecution for shooting at a drone could be similar to that for shooting at manned airplanes, meaning criminal or civil liability. The federal statute for destruction of airplanes, which allows penalties of up to 20 years in prison, may not end up applying directly to drones, as the FAA is currently in the midst of developing its own special UAS guidelines.

    But destroying a federal drone for a bounty would violate a variety of laws, my favorite of which would probably be the law against making money from stolen or "converted" federal property. Shooting a federal drone for profit is clearly not legal, which would appear to make the judicial review of Steel's proposal a foregone conclusion.