The first gunshot didn’t faze Lenny Helbig too much. He was setting up an aerial photograph of his friend’s under-construction house, and he knew a nearby quarry was favored by local plinkers. It was the next three shots that got his attention. “I looked to my left and this woman is out on the balcony—she’s yelling ‘What the fuck are you doing, you pervert?’ I’m like: ‘Oh my god! You just fucking 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. It was brought down with a 12-gauge shotgun by Russell Percenti, who was Helbig’s friend’s next-door neighbor and the son of the woman who was shouting at him. Helbig says the drone never even flew over Percenti’s property.
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. These stories are often framed as tales of normal people getting revenge on snooping tech bros—an understandable and fundamentally American reaction to a creeping surveillance society. 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. Ammo companies advertise shotgun shells designed to shoot down quadcopters, a slick “Johnny Dronehunter” ad pushes shotgun silencers, and a Colorado town has attempted to offer drone hunting licenses. The Kentucky drone shooter has even inspired T-shirts and a nickname—the Droneslayer.
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 out peacefully.
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. This is why hikers are advised to take extra safety precautions during hunting season. While falling ammunition has a lower velocity than that of a just-fired bullet, it’s still quite capable of killing someone, especially if it’s fired at a shallow angle—which would describe any shot someone might take at a drone.
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. Unintentional deaths and injuries from falling ammunition are both global and common: A March 2016 BBC story described a series of deaths and injuries from celebratory gunfire at weddings in India while 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 gun fire, but it would be great if a researcher took that on.)
A drone-shooting advocate or apologist might argue, “But the pilot must be far away, so this isn’t very dangerous.” Wrong. First: Distance doesn’t mean much when it comes to stray ammunition. Depending on the angle and weather conditions, a rifle can potentially send a bullet six miles away from its origin point while bullets fired from a handgun can potentially travel as much as a mile and a half. An Amish girl died in 2011 after being struck in the head by a bullet accidentally fired from a rifle 1.5 miles away.
Secondly, I suspect people assume it’s OK to shoot at a drone because they think the pilot isn’t close. Maybe they believe small drones are similar to the long-range unmanned aerial vehicles used by the military, which can be remotely piloted over Iraq or Afghanistan by pilots stationed in Nevada. The small drones I’m talking about have much shorter operating ranges: a maximum of 3.1 miles for the popular Phantom 4, dipping to less than 2 miles for these other popular models.
Furthermore, the FAA doesn’t permit drones to be flown beyond the visual line of sight. That means most drone pilots are much, much closer to their drone than 2 miles. That’s almost always the case when I fly my drone, and it was also the case with Lenny Helbig, who told me that he was only about 70 feet away from the drone when Percenti fired his last shot.
Making matters worse, drone pilots are very unlikely to be alone, as most bring along someone else to act as a spotter, to carry gear, or simply to watch. Drones also have great appeal to kids, and many children from across the age spectrum fly them, build them, or are simply fascinated by them. “I used to take my 6-year-old daughter to fly with me all the time,” Helbig told me. “She could have been shot, she could have been traumatized.” Luckily, she wasn’t there at the time of the shooting—and he now is reluctant to bring her along on his flying trips.
To recap: When someone impulsively shoots at a drone, he is shooting at a hard-to-hit flying object that is legally required to be very close to a human being, probably multiple human beings, quite possibly including children, whom the shooter cannot see clearly or even see at all.
The drone itself presents another hazard when it is shot. A falling plastic-and-metal drone can hurt someone more than a falling duck or a pheasant, and it’s very hard to control where a damaged drone will land. What’s more, most small drones use powerful lithium polymer batteries. When handled with care, these batteries are safe—but they can potentially explode and start fires if they are unexpectedly slammed to the ground. And it’s a lot easier for a drone pilot to deal with a fire if she’s not running from someone with a gun.
“Well, people shouldn’t fly over private property if they don’t want to get shot at!” a drone-shooting advocate might reply. It’s not that simple.
For starters, it can be very hard to tell whether a small flying object actually is over your property by looking at it, due to the natural depth perception limitations of the human eye. I know this because I spend a lot of time worrying about this when I’m flying my drone, as I try to avoid flying over private property or distressing anybody. Property owners face similar challenges in eyeballing where an aerial object is in relation to the ground, and unlike drone pilots, they probably aren’t looking at a screen that shows the exact location of my GPS receiver–carrying drone on the map.
This means that even though I take great pains to avoid flying over private property without explicit consent, I’m still absolutely worried about getting shot at—and I’d like to think most Americans would agree that people engaging in law-abiding, peaceful activity shouldn’t have to legitimately worry about evading hostile gunfire.
But what if you’re absolutely sure the drone is over your property? Putting aside the fact that legally speaking, it remains unclear how the “reasonable use” of airspace above one’s property applies to drones. Even in this case, most people would agree that shooting at someone you think is trespassing on your property is not an acceptable first resort—the risk of harming or killing the trespasser is too high. And most landowners should be aware that while it depends on state law, it’s usually not legal to shoot at trespassers unless you fear great bodily harm or death. Recreational drones may certainly be a nuisance or a privacy risk, but they simply don’t represent an immediate risk to bodily harm or death.
If most would agree a drone isn’t an immediate deadly threat, why do they elicit such an aggressive reaction? A lot of aspirant drone shooters seem to predicate their aggressive reaction on two things: the assumption that the absolute worst case scenario is that a plastic toy is destroyed—which I think we’ve already established isn’t the case—and that a drone pilot they perceive as close to their property must have malicious intentions. Yet, most people aren’t concerned by manned aircraft over their property, even though they contain actual people and are capable of carrying heavy telephoto lenses, unlike my drone camera, which can’t zoom.
The vast majority of hobby and professional drone pilots aren’t criminals casing homes or creeps seeking naked photos. Instead, they’re ordinary people like me, focused on innocent pursuits like taking a pretty picture of a sunset, mapping a property for real estate purposes, experimenting with camera settings, or shooting a video of a buddy doing a sick bike trick.
While it is certainly possible that someone flying a drone in the vicinity of your property is trying to do you harm, it is by far the most unlikely scenario. A drone over your property is much more likely to be piloted by some dork who wasn’t able to eyeball property limits in advance or just made a dumb mistake. A person who makes a dumb mistake or misreads property lines may very well deserve to be yelled at, or even questioned by police, but I submit he doesn’t deserve to have multiple rifle rounds shot in his direction without so much as a warning—putting him at risk of serious injury or even death. (It’s also the case that most laws treat trespassers who enter private property unknowingly quite differently from those who enter private property intentionally.)
If someone does use drone imagery or photos to invade your privacy or to otherwise harm you, there are legal means of fighting back. While each state has slightly different regulations, existing Peeping Tom and privacy laws can be applied to unwanted drone photos and videos. Privacy laws specifically pertaining to drones will doubtless be developed and refined as the technology becomes more common.
Many people are uncomfortable with drones and the privacy and surveillance issues that their use brings up—and I’m committed to finding compromises, keeping the lines of communication open, and taking public concerns seriously. But in return, I’d like drone-skeptics to understand that shooting at my drone does absolutely nothing to resolve this ongoing cultural debate. All it does is put people like me and the many law-abiding drone pilots I know at serious risk.