sci am

Before airplanes and drones existed, people owned everything above and below their land—according to the law, their rights extended “to the heavens and down to hell.”

But modern aviation changed this definition in a big way. In the early 20th century Congress declared the air a public highway, which
limited land rights so that people were not trespassing every time they flew. That public highway has generally been considered 500 feet and above. But airspace from the ground up to 500 feet is a gray area—no one’s ever had to fully settle who owns this airspace.

Ask someone at the FAA and they’ll tell you that the agency controls (but does not own) airspace down to the ground. Yet it’s clear that
landowners have some claim to the air. “Everyone agrees that the owner of land also owns the airspace above the land,” says Stuart Banner, a UCLA law professor. “Because there are no rules to say whether piloting a quadcopter over someone’s property is trespassing, state and local governments have started making
their own.”

Another well reported story on what by now are familiar issues. Unfortunately this is likely to take years to sort out – with the possible result that things stay in limbo for longer than we would like.


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