Sunday, April 14, 2024

Hundreds of drones are in Williamsburg’s skies, what are your rights from the ground?

Courtesy Carlton Farms Facebook page.
(Courtesy Carlton Farms Facebook page)

It was 5:30 in the morning when a distant sound like a bee allegedly spooked two horses at a James City County farm. The horses had injured themselves on a fence; 17 minutes later, police were called.

A drone, or an unmanned aircraft system, flew over the horse farm at a height of 350 feet near the James River to capture video of the 6:11 a.m. sunrise on July 31, 2017, according to a Police Report on Drones.

The manager of the horse farm, alleged to police that the drone had frightened the horses “and caused them to break through a fence,” the report states.

After the police left and the horses were calmed, the manager of the farm, Kayleigh Hirsh, decided to take matters into her own hands.

“It was a very severe incident for the farm,” Hirsh said. “I had to move every horse in the front of the farm to the back of the farm because they were legitimately scared.”

Hirsh soon erected a 30 foot long sign on the edge of the property. It read “NO DRONE ZONE.”

A DJI Spark drone hovers. (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)
A DJI Spark drone hovers. (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)

The accusation that the horses were frightened intentionally was later determined to be “unfounded” by police, and no charges were filed against the drone’s operator, but the case has brought to light the legal grey areas in operating new technology.

As the 2017 holiday shopping season continues, data shows that past sales of drones have increased year over year.

According to a 2016 report by the Motley Fool, in November 2014, drone manufacturer 3D Robotics estimated only half a million drones had been sold to date. One year later, nearly a million drones were sold just during the holiday season.

The Consumer Technology Association estimates 3.4 million drones will be sold in 2017, according to a news release.

“I shuddered going through Black Friday sales seeing all the drones, Hirsh said. “I shuddered knowing they’d become easier to get.”

In Greater Williamsburg, there are 475 registered drones for hobbyists, and 89 registrations for professional use.

As consumers and companies alike look to drones for delivery services, agricultural crop management, and for fun, the proliferation of the aircraft has not been without a problem.

In Virginia Beach, drones have been banned from airshows and one crashed into a crowd in 2013 injuring several spectators.

After the accidents, the Federal Aviation Administration established rules for unmanned aircraft in 2016.

Carlton Farms horse ranch (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)
Carlton Farms horse ranch (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)

FAA rules require drone pilots to register their aircraft and take training courses, if the drone is used for a commercial or governmental purpose. The rules also prohibit flying dangerously, while intoxicated, over crowds of people, or near restricted airspace, the guidelines say.

However,a special rule, put in place by the agency allows for recreational pilots to fly drones with fewer regulations, according to the guidelines.

The Special Rule for Model Aircraft allows for unskilled drone pilots — there are no pilot requirements — to take to the skies without any training at all, according to the guidelines.

Where the law gets murky is where a drone pilot’s right to fly in the air intersect with property owners rights over their land, according to Professor Sarah Nilsson of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

When the drone pilot in James City County flew over the Carlton Farms horse ranch on July 31, everything he or she did was legal under federal law, but there can still be concerns of invasion of privacy or trespassing, Nilsson said.

The air all around a person’s property is owned by the public, according to Nilsson. That means drones can fly over a home or a ranch regardless of what a property owner wants, because the property owner doesn’t own the air the drone is flying in.

There is no “pretty answer,” Nilsson said. “The law is just not settled yet.”

Further, property owners who shoot down or destroy drones in-flight are breaking a federal law on the destruction of aircraft. If prosecuted, an offender could face fines and up to five years in prison.

However, drones can violate a property owner’s rights under a small set of conditions according to the FAA.

“Property owners may prohibit unmanned aircraft operators from taking off from or landing on their property,” FAA spokeswoman Arlene Salac wrote in an email.

At the ranch, the drone incident caused Hirsh to call the FAA and educate herself on the laws regarding unmanned aircraft systems.

“To me it is a form of trespassing, but we can’t get all worked up about that part,” Hirsh said of the incident. “I was to the point where I was going to shoot that particular drone down, then I discovered it was a federal offence. That I could do jail time if I destroy an unmanned aircraft.”

For Jonathon Foglia, a Washington D.C. based lawyer and adjunct professor of Georgetown University’s Law Center, the real question is where does the national airspace system begin and end?

“I think a lot of practitioners in this field are struggling with it these days,” Foglia said. “Does the national airspace system begin at 20 feet over your property? 50 feet over your property? It hasn’t been addressed.”

The FAA can’t regulate drones inside buildings, according to Foglia, because it’s not navigable airspace. If a helicopter or a plane cannot operate in the space safely then it’s generally not navigable airspace.

Foglia presented the incident of the drone and the horse farm in a different light, “What if it was a helicopter?”

The intersection of property, privacy, and airspace rights will continue to be debated, all while drones proliferate in American society, according to Nilsson.

At the ranch, Hirsh said she hoped pilots understood the consequences of their flying. She’s waiting for the FAA to pass down regulations.

“I feel like they’re working on it,” Hirsh said. “But the drone industry is developing faster than they’re working on a regulation for it.”

Click here to learn more about federal rules on drones.

Have you had a run-in with a drone? Tell us about it, email

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