Legally Weird - The FindLaw Legal Curiosities Blog

The FAA Is Here to Take Away Your Flamethrower Drone

You know how the saying goes: "Give a man a drone, and he'll strap a flamethrower on that bad boy and roast a turkey with it." (Teach a man to drone, and he'll talk turkey for the rest of his life.) And here comes the Federal Aviation Administration, trying to take away your god-given right to flamethrowing-drone-roasted turkey.

But how far does the long arm of the airplane law actually reach? Surely not into our forested backyards, where we should be free to attach any old incendiary device to an unmanned whirlybird and fly that thing all over tarnation.

Like a Bird, Like a Drone

Long ago, before man was given the ability to fly through the air like a bird, incredibly, partaking in miracle of human flight, the law said a man owned all the sky above his property, "all the way to heaven." But it didn't take long after the advent of commercial and military flight before an agitated chicken farmer took a pot shot at some naval aircraft and the Supreme Court ruled that there's a limit to how much airspace a landowner can claim as his own before federal authority took hold.

What the Court didn't say was how high that property interest went: "We need not speculate on that phase of the present case." But that left speculation to everyone else since -- speculation that has only increased with ubiquitous unmanned aircraft systems. The FAA has slowly started to regulate drone registration and usage, attempting to limit where and when drones can be flown.

Attack of the Drones

Enter Austin Haughwout, drone tinkerer and film auteur, and his father, Bret, who have now been subpoenaed twice by the FAA regarding home drone movies -- the one with the flaming turkey and a shorter, previous clip with a small gun firing from a drone mid-flight. The FAA haven't charged either Haughwout with a crime -- the subpoenas have been for information and records only -- but the family's refusal to comply has touched off a conflict between personal property and federal regulatory authority.

The Haughwouts are fighting compliance with the subpoenas, and challenging the FAA's authority to regulate their drone usage at all. And they're using some pretty nifty tactics as well:

The verb fly, as in "fly in the air," is not so plain, though. There is fly in the sense of airborne locomotion, like how birds fly from one place to another. But ... flags also fly, when attached to a pole, don't they? We also say that plastic bags or bits of paper carried on the air fly about -- isn't that a motif in American Beauty? And don't we say that bullets or knives or any airborne dangerous object -- don't they fly through the air too, especially when there are lots of them? Baseballs can go pretty high -- we call it a "fly ball." Okay.

BOOM. Take that, federal buzzkills. As of now, the FAA has been secure in its authority to regulate even personal drone usage above private property. Whether it wants to risk that authority over an airborne turkey roaster remains to be seen.

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