It’s said that the FAA FARs (Federal Aviation Regulations) are written in blood.
I truly hope enforcement doesn’t end up taking that same path. But I fear it may.
If I were a betting man, and one that tends to wager on macabre subjects, I’d see if it’s possible to lay a bet at a Vegas casino (it isn’t by the way) on which state gets the distinction of having the first fatality during a drone pilot/irate general public interaction.
Because given the complete and utter lack of any prosecution, even with multiple chances, this is likely to happen. Count on it.
What started with Kentuckian William Meredith shooting down a drone (in what would become the infamous “Drone Slayer” case) has since become almost a monthly occurrence. And it’s happening in dramatic fashion, and with braggadocio from many of the shooters.
Of course, having Kentucky Judge Rebecca Ward tell the world that Mr. Meredith had the right to shoot it down made it worse (Judge Ward was later suspended without pay for violating the code of judicial conduct, and treating those in her courtroom in an “undignified and discourteous way”, but not due to the ruling in this case). That mistake was compounded by the absolute silence on the matter offered by both the FAA and the DOJ. That case was the loudest silence this industry had seen to date. But that has now changed thanks to the Greulich case. More on that later.
The Meredith case was the perfect chance for the FAA and DOJ to get out in front of this issue. They could have come out with a ruling and put this to bed during the infancy stage of this industry. Instead, we as drone owners now have to spend an inordinate amount of our own time trying to put that toothpaste back in the tube. A task difficult enough under the best of circumstances, and virtually impossible under the onslaught of social media posts on the matter.
It’s now common for a forum post about being threatened to be shot down pop up every few weeks. It’s even weekly at times. sUAS operators frequently have their aircraft shot at and shot down. And they themselves are frequently threatened. And at times those threats carry through to physical violence.
It seems drones have become the scourge of neighborhood skies. And keyboard warriors everywhere have decided the best defense is a good offense. And more times than not, that offense involves firearms.
Don’t believe me? Go on your local community forum (www.nextdoor.com is a good one) and check out any conversation that revolves around someone seeing a drone flying around the neighborhood.
Or if you’re into social experimentation, start one by mentioning that you saw one flying over your house. Ask your neighbors for ideas on what you can do about it. I guarantee that 25-50% of the answers will be “shoot it down”, or derivatives thereof.
While this society certainly has its fair share of keyboard warriors (a subject popular for many stories in and of itself), many of those responding to your little social experiment will be dead serious. Pun intended.
And a popular remedy suggested often enough becomes a societal norm.
I’d say first and foremost, it has to lie at the feet of the FAA. Yes, I know they are only an educational and regulatory agency. But when something happens, it’s up to them to refer that incident to one of the DOJ alphabet agencies for follow up and prosecution. Without that referral, the incident goes nowhere.
And until recently, I hadn’t heard of any cases being referred to the DOJ. And now that one has, the DOJ can join the FAA as cohabitants of the Club of Prosecutorial Inaction.
After so many incidents of drones being shot at and shot down, why this article now?
Because the DOJ blew what was the second best opportunity to date when it comes to protecting sUAS pilots and operators. They blew it big time, and it worries this drone pilot when I consider what it may take for them to actually prosecute someone who shoots down a drone. Until that happens, it’s open season on drones, and drone operators.
On September 5TH of this year Richard Greulich was flying his DJI Inspire 2 in rural Ohio when it was shot down by Mr. Jeffrey O. Arndt. Mr. Greulich is a hobbyist drone owner, and aspiring to become a commercial drone pilot. He decided that a new county bridge would be a good place to practice flying orbits (smooth circular flights). It was out in the county, and away from people. He didn’t want to disturb people, and as we teach in the industry, a good place to practice is away from people and in open areas. Mr. Greulich was doing everything right. So he drove out to near the bridge (you don’t want to be in the video, so you stand a bit away), flew out to the bridge, over the bridge to set the center point, and then pulled back to start his orbit. These are all established techniques for flying an autonomous orbit.
Once at the right distance away from the bridge, he started his orbit opposite Mr. Arndt’s property, and across the street. He flew the orbit counter clockwise at an elevation of 161’ Above Ground Level (AGL). As the flight was about ¾ of the way through its orbit, it happened to cross Mr. Arndt’s property line (again, at 161’AGL), so Mr. Arndt shot it down. He got one lucky shot with his shotgun, then delivered two more shots once on the ground. He’s damn lucky the LiPo fire he started with the blasts didn’t spread. Based on the body camera from the responding police, Mr. Arndt’s farm and surrounding area looked pretty dry at the time. LiPo fires and old farms are usually not a good combination.
Mr. Greulich had no idea what had happened, he just knew his drone had malfunctioned and since he had the flight records, knew approximately where it was. He went to the farm and knocked on the door. It was answered by Mr. Arndt’s adult son who denied knowing anything about the drone, and stating no one else was home. After twice denying any knowledge of the drone, Mr. Arndt came to the door and admitted to shooting it down, saying he had a right to “shoot down anything over his property”. An opinion shared by many I might add.
Arndt then went and got the drone, and Mr. Greulich took it, went home, and called the Sheriff. The responding deputy took both sides of the story, and since it was beyond anything he’d dealt with before, he called the City Prosecutor and forwarded the report to that office the next morning.
Without getting much further in to the woods with this, they all refused to do anything and said it was up to the FAA, and Civil Court if Mr. Greulich wanted justice.
Mr. Greulich also had contacted the Cleveland FAA office, and the incident was forwarded to Mrs. Janet Riffe. Mrs. Riffe is the Manager of the Enforcement Standards and Policy Division, and she is the principal contact for the National Capital Region (NCR) in response to aviation related threats, including UAS and laser incidents. She rightly forwarded the report to the DOT Inspector General’s Office, where they declined to pursue the case. Our repeated requests for the information about who declined, and why, have been denied. We were told to file a FOIA request instead. That seems like a slap in the face. “Sorry you got your drone shot down, but if you want to know why we don’t care, go through the hassle of a FOIA.” Obviously that wasn’t their answer, but that’s basically what they’re saying.
The case was also referred to the local FBI field office for “their awareness”. While I certainly appreciate Ms. Riffe’s actions in doing so, all I received was a link to the DOT OIG phone listing. It’s not that hard to simply pass that info along. It’s certainly obtainable with a FOIA, but it would be so much simpler to just make the info public. After all, all of the people involved are Public Servants. I’d love to see a little service geared towards the public here.
Mr. Greulich had only one resolution left to him, so he took Arndt to small claims court. Arndt held steadfast to his right to shoot down anything over his property, stating defense against trespass. Judge Mary “Molly” Mack accepted magistrate James F. Schaller II’s decision to Arndt’s defense stating in the finding “I find that the defendant made no effort to warn or notify the plaintiff, that the use of a deadly firearm was excessive, and that defendant had no reasonable grounds to believe that the drone would cause him or others great bodily harm.”
Mr. Greulich was awarded $4645.00 plus 4% statutory interest and costs. So at least he can replace his Inspire 2 and still pursue his desire to become a commercial drone pilot. Assuming he still wants to, considering his first interaction with the FAA has left him wondering if it’s worth it. He is currently attempting to collect that judgment.
So, let’s get back to my subtitle, why would I suggest the attacking public might be the possible first victim?
Because quite frankly, we as drone pilots and operators are incredibly worried about what could happen to us while we’re flying. So much so, that now many pilots either have concealed carry permits, or in states where it’s allowed, openly carry firearms when they are flying. Personally, I carry bear gel. Basically, that’s capsicum pepper spray in gel form. So instead of spraying all over the place, and possibly getting back on you, this sticks to whatever (or whoever) you aim it at. It definitely ruins your day if you get sprayed with it. But at least it’s non-lethal. But my VO and I have discussed getting a CCW permit, even though Colorado is an open carry state.
So, who carries, open or CCW? And size really doesn’t matter. I know of a very petite young lady pilot who carries, and I know an imposingly large male pilot who carries. It’s not the pilots like these two I’m worried about. They’ve had the training and know the rules. The best concealed carry weapon is always one that never sees the light of day.
But what about those who don’t have the training, or find themselves in a situation that is escalating quickly? Those are the situations where someone is going to get hurt. Or killed.
Which brings us back to the entire point of this article.
The FAA and the DOJ must be deliberate and quickly get the official word out about shooting at drones. And they need to establish the FAA’s preemption, and the fact that it’s both illegal and dangerous to shoot a drone out of the sky.
First, they need to put out a press release stating the obvious; that it is illegal and dangerous to shoot down a drone (& hassle the operator). Explain why, and explain the actual rules of the NAS. This won’t keep people from posting in the forums described earlier in this article. But it is a very good resource we could use in those forums when we are trying to get that toothpaste back in the tube. We would simply include a link to the press release each time it comes up. This needs to be a joint new release by the legal departments in both the FAA and the DOJ.
I wouldn’t hurt to mention (or illustrate) what happens when a punctured 4000mAh battery hits the roof while flaming out. And what happens when that hapless homeowner grabs the hose to try and put it out.
Second, prosecute someone. Start with Mr. Jeffery O Arndt. There is police body cam of him admitting it, and testimony of the actual incident. All the DOJ (or, the DOT OIG) need to do is review the existing reports and fill in the blanks. There would be plenty of national coverage accompanying the prosecution. And that alone would be invaluable for the safety of drone owners everywhere.
And while we’re asking, how about a few prosecutions about people who attack us? Just a few weeks ago, a friend of mine was assaulted near Marble, CO. Two ranch hands came out while he was flying (perfectly legally) in the area, and the ranch hands decided they didn’t want the drone near them. They took the controller and phone from him and it crashed his drone. While he went to get the drone, they threw the rest of his gear onto the ranch property and threatened to have him arrested for trespassing if he went and got it. They also punched him in the face.
He called the Sheriff, and after two hours, they finally showed up. No charges were filed to my knowledge, and the Sheriff refused to do anything about the drone, because that was “FAA’s responsibility”. But they don’t do anything either.
We are aircraft, FAA. The courts say so, because you wanted it that way. We fly under your rules, and follow your safety guidelines. We’re not asking you to treat us the same as an actual flight crew while on the ground, but a little public support would be nice.
However, we are asking you to treat us the same as manned aviation when it comes to being shot down. Obviously lives won’t be lost when we are shot down, but the danger to those on the ground is very much the same.
I know there are many folks inside the FAA that agree with us. Hopefully they can share their sentiments with others inside that can make a difference. Between the pressure from outside, and the pressure from inside, enforcement against those ignorant enough to shoot down drones can be written in ink, not blood.
And it can’t come soon enough. Because for some drone owners, it’s already too late.
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