Publish date: 20160413
In the wake of the latest drone shooting, this time in Norfork, Ark., many in the drone community have been wondering whether unmanned aircraft were federally protected from criminal destruction just like manned aircraft. Since the FAA considers drones to be aircraft, it makes sense that they would have the same federal protections as manned aircraft since the FAA holds their operation to many of the same standards.
But with at least a dozen reported shootings of drones and no federal prosecution, the question of their federally-protected status remained open. But today the FAA in response to my questioning confirmed that shooting down a drone is a federal crime and cited 18 USC 32. That statute makes it a felony to damage or destroy an aircraft.
According to Loretta Alkalay, an aviation attorney who teaches Drone Law at Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology, the statute also prohibits interfering with anyone “engaged in the authorized operation of such aircraft” and carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison. Since drones are considered aircraft, threatening a drone or a drone operator, according to Ms. Alkalay, would also be a federal crime subject to five years in prison under this same statute.
The question I have not been able to get an answer to — despite repeated calls and emails to the FBI and the Department of Justice — is when the United States will federally prosecute someone for shooting down a drone. According to the FAA “regardless of the situation, shooting at any aircraft — including unmanned aircraft — poses a significant safety hazard. An unmanned aircraft hit by gunfire could crash, causing damage to persons or property on the ground, or it could collide with other objects in the air. ”
It’s time the United States put an end to these dangerous acts and criminally prosecuted those who shoot at unmanned aircraft. The recent case in Arkansas would be a good place to start.