FAA Interprets Federal Law to Protect Drones

April 18, 2016

Drone CameraThe Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has reportedly interpreted existing federal law to protect unmanned aerial vehicles from attacks.  This action appears to provide protection for drones under U.S. federal law by making attacks against them felony offenses.

With the rising popularity of aerial drones, disputes involving their operation have become more numerous.  In a recent Kentucky case, for example, a Kentucky court determined that a landowner was within his rights to shoot down a drone flying over his property.

Cases such as the one in Kentucky led drone operators to request an opinion from the FAA regarding federal law protection afforded to drones while in operation.  The FAA asserted that current federal law does, in fact, provide protection for unmanned aerial vehicles while they are in operation.

The FAA bases its conclusion on 18 U.S.C. 32.  This federal law provision makes it a felony to damage or destroy an aircraft.  The FAA has determined that unmanned aerial vehicles are aircraft and are subject to FAA jurisdiction.  Based on this determination, the FAA has reportedly chosen to apply existing federal law protections for aircraft to drones.

The FAA has not yet taken any formal action applying federal law to attacks against drones.  It seems likely, however, that federal authorities will soon become more actively involved in drone disputes and will use the FAA’s authority to protect aircraft from attack as the basis for those actions.

Matsuura Blakeley BannerThe scope of the protection afforded to drones by federal law remains currently uncertain.  Although it seems clear that federal jurisdiction would likely be asserted in instances similar to the Kentucky case in which a drone is directly fired upon, other actions taken against drones might present greater challenges for authorities.

For example, unmanned aerial vehicles are now targets of electronic attacks.  Those attacks are aimed at the electronic systems of the drones and in some instances are intended to disable the vehicles.  In other cases, the electronic attacks are designed to take control over the operation of the drones, enabling the attacker to hijack the vehicles.  At present, it is uncertain as to the extent to which such electronic attacks on drones might be prosecuted under federal law.

As federal authorities consider, on a case-by-case basis, the extent to which they will assert jurisdiction in drone disputes, they are likely to remain mindful of the potential precedential impact those decisions may have.  The FAA is now treating unmanned aerial vehicles as aircraft thus its decisions regarding actions to be taken to protect flight safety and security could have implications for traditional aircraft and air safety, as well.

The actions the FAA takes to protect unmanned aerial vehicles could have important implications for manned aircraft.  The FAA has actively asserted its oversight authority for traditional forms of aviation in the past.  It is reasonable to expect similar active oversight in the context of the operations of unmanned aerial vehicles.