On the evening of July 26th, in Bullitt County, Ky., William Merideth’s daughter came in from the backyard and told her father that she’d just seen a drone fly over their neighborhood. Merideth, 47, walked outside and watched a Phantom quadcopter glide down their street, then grabbed his shotgun. When the drone flew over his property, he blasted it down.
Soon, four men drove up to Merideth’s home. One of the men, David Boggs, had just bought the drone and says he was demonstrating it to his friends and family. Merideth told local TV news station WDRB that when Boggs and his friends arrived at his place, he warned them, “If you cross my sidewalk, there’s going to be another shooting.” Boggs called 911 and 30 minutes later, police arrested Merideth.
The two men disagree how low Boggs flew his drone above Merideth’s home—Merideth estimates about 100 feet or less, while Boggs has data that places it above 200 feet. The drone’s exact altitude may not seem crucial, but it is unclear if landowners get to decide who can fly a drone over their property at 100 or even 300 feet, because no one has actually decided yet who owns this slice of airspace (whether you’re allowed to shoot down a drone hovering over your property is an even more complicated question).
Today thousands of people and businesses across the country fly drones, and that number is set to explode: The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) anticipates that this holiday season people will purchase as many as one million drones. In an effort to control this flood of flying machines the FAA announced this week that it would require recreational drone users to register their aircraft. But a big question with major implications for the drone industry is far from being resolved: Who owns the airspace above private property? As Stuart Banner, a University of California, Los Angeles, law professor, puts it, “Drones are forcing people to think about this issue for the first time since airplanes were invented a century ago.”