Technologist - The FindLaw Legal Technology Blog

Flamethrower Drone Draws Government Ire. Can the FAA Regulate?

When Connecticut student Austin Haughwout attached a semiautomatic pistol to his drone and showcased his proof-of-concept on YouTube, he must have known that government would start raising eyebrows. It looks like the legal issue this has instigated will end up in court soon enough.

We all would love the privilege of roasting our next Thanksgiving bird via flying-flamethrower, but we genuinely feel that Austin has poked the dragon in the eye on this one.

The (Hilarious and Scary) Videos

It's like a scene out of Jackass gone wrong and a little too far. Connecticut student Austin Haughtwout posted a video to this YouTube account entitled simply "Flying Gun," which featured what looks to be a 9mm semiautomatic pistol attached to a drone and that fires off over a weeded hill.

A little before Thanksgiving last year, the FAA sent Austin and his father subpoenas of records demanding documentation of monies received from the video and purchase records of the stuff in the video. The d ad balked at the government's requests. In a rather lawyerly response, he claimed that since the FAA did not alleged a particular violation, it had no cause to make such a request.

Father and son then decided to turn the knob a bit further and posted a second video of another drone, this time rigged with a flamethrower, curing their Thanksgiving turkey's dryness by dousing it with flames and fuel. By the end of the video, the bird was a lump of charcoal.

FAA Rolls up Its Sleeves

When the Haughwouts did not respond to FAA requests again, the agency called upon a federal judge to enforce the subpoena. The government argued that drones under FAA regulations or 14 C.F.R. sec. 1.1 fall under the general term "aircraft," and thus, the FAA had jurisdiction.

But the Haughwout's attorney was ready for that. Check out his response:

The present case is one of first impression--no Article III Court has had occasion to examine the scope of the term "aircraft" as used in the FAA organic statute or 14 C.F.R. § 1.1. The statutory definition of aircraft is ambiguous, and the FAA's construction is patently absurd. Sure, §40102(a)(6) and 14 C.F.R. §1.1 looks simple enough. A thing, any thing, that flies.

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 airborn (sic) 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.

For the sake of the argument, let's imagine the "airborne locomotion" definition is the only one. That leaves ... Frisbees. Clay pigeons. Paper airplanes. A pole for pole vaulting. A good pair of basketball sneakers. A rubber band. Spitballs. Anything juggled. A birthday balloon. Hand tossed pizza dough. Ceramic plates during a lovers' spat. Genetically engineered fruit flies, bacteria, pollen. Alright, alright.

Friends of the Drone

Mario Cerame of the Randazza Legal Group submitted his amicus defending Austin. When FAA laws were being created, he argues, drones "were the stuff of science fiction ... The statute did not contemplate their existence. Rather, the statute was directed at airplanes, helicopters, and blimps, and the resources on the ground to support them."

Related Resources: