“I looked to my left and this woman is out on the balcony—she’s yelling ‘What the f__k are you doing, you pervert?’ I’m like: ‘Oh my god! You just f__king shot at my drone!’ “
It was September 2014, and Lenny Helbig had become likely the first American to have his drone shot out of the air. The New Jersey incident would make national news, but it was only the first. Since then, drones have been very publicly shot out of the sky in Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, and most recently in a (perhaps embellished) case in Virginia.
Some who might otherwise disapprove of solving problems with firearms cheer on drone shootings, as if the shooters are brave vanguards of an anti-surveillance revolution at best, or slightly naughty at worst.
As a law-abiding civilian drone pilot, I don’t find these stories innocuous or amusing. Instead, like many drone pilots I know, I’m increasingly terrified that I’ll be shot at—maybe hurt or even killed—while I’m engaging in a perfectly legal activity. I’m afraid that if someone shoots my drone, I won’t be able to control it, putting other people on the ground at risk of injury, and even potentially causing a battery fire. And I’m afraid that laughing at or cheering on drone shooters normalizes a potentially deadly overreaction to scenarios that can be sorted
Most stories about why shooting down a drone is a bad idea focus on the legal side of things, perhaps operating under the assumption that the danger is obvious. They reiterate that the Federal Aviation Administration considers shooting at all aircraft, including drones, a hazardous action and a federal crime, and note that the owner of the drone may be able to sue for damages. The legal arguments are important. But since it seems that the public hasn’t quite grasped the danger element, I want to talk about the risk to human life that shooting at a drone presents.
The main reason that shooting at a drone is dangerous is, well, gravity. A projectile that’s fired into the air has to come down at some point, and a drone that can be shot at must by default be flying at a relatively high altitude. That’s why discharging a firearm is illegal in heavily populated areas in many cities and towns in the United States. But that doesn’t mean that shooting at a drone in a rural or suburban area is safe. People are regularly hurt and killed by falling ammunition that is shot into the sky or misses its mark.
A 1994 study from Los Angeles of 118 victims of falling ammunition found that 77 percent were hit in the head, and 32 percent of victims died. Furthermore, a 2012 nationwide study from the University of California–Davis found 252 injuries and an additional 65 deaths attributed to stray bullets between March 2008 and 2009. A 2015 Newsweek article described the Los Angeles’ police department’s annual struggle to keep people from shooting guns into the air for fun. No studies currently look at the specific danger to drone pilots and bystanders from gunfire, but it would be great if a researcher took that on.
Faine Greenwood is an assistant researcher at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. He frequently rights about how drone technology can be used in humanitarian contexts and we have run a number of his articles here.
If you are a regular reader you can probably guess what I am going to say:
The FAA has yet to prosecute anyone for shooting down a drone.
People see drones as symbols of all they hate about intrusions into their privacy.
For those patchwork quilt haters, I don’t think that a drone overhead is viewed in the same light as trespassing.