The Effects of Drones on Airspace Rights in California and Where to Go From Here

Authored by Scott Hall and David Anderson; First published in the California Real Property Journal, a quarterly publication of the Real Property Law Section of the State Bar of California.

Combined with powerful state-of-the-art cameras and communications technology, drones are capable of efficiently and economically photographing, videotaping, and gathering other information for applications and in manners previously undreamed of. This impressive technological leap forward, however, has been accompanied by numerous documented instances of blatant misuse, which in turn, have prompted calls for state and federal lawmakers—including those in California—to spring into action. The legislative response to drones, however, has struggled to keep up with the technological capabilities and ever-expanding uses of drones. Additionally, lawmakers have failed to provide necessary clarity regarding the rights and restrictions of drone operation in the context of property rights in airspace above private property.

Instead, the limited legislative solutions enacted in response to drones have thus far focused on protecting privacy rights rather than establishing clear property rights. In October 2015, in response to public outcry over growing incidents of drone invasions of privacy, California enacted a widely-applauded law—AB 856—that directly addressed privacy concerns associated with drone use by prohibiting any knowing entrance into the airspace above the land of another person without permission in order to capture images, sounds, or other physical impressions of private activity. While this so-called “Anti-Paparazzi” law may give celebrities additional legal recourse against snooping paparazzi drones, it does little to protect the privacy of non-celebrities who may not have the financial resources or individualized incentives to pursue legal remedies for potential violations. Moreover, despite being technically couched as expanding the scope of unlawful “trespass,” AB 856 focuses on intentional conduct that invades privacy rather than clarifying the parameters of airspace property rights, and, in so doing, fails to provide needed guidance to both property owners and drone operators about what rights each possess when it comes to drone operation above private property.

Indeed, at the same time AB 856 was signed into law, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed other drone legislation that would have created a bright-line rule to protect airspace rights over private property by allowing property owners to prohibit drones from flying below a certain height over their property without their consent. In the wake of these legislative and executive decisions, the continuing lack of clarity regarding the scope of airspace property rights (including where drones may and may not operate) is likely to result in increased confusion about those rights. It may even lead to increased occurrences of property owners taking the law into their own hands. Various incidents around the country involving property owners shooting at drones, or otherwise attempting to prohibit drones from entering airspace above their property, suggest that many believe that the protection of such airspace is as important to the reasonable use and enjoyment of their property as the land itself.

Whether current laws are sufficient to deal with the new and unique issues presented by drones, or whether new drone-specific laws and regulations should be enacted—and what those laws should look like—is currently the subject of heated debate in California and throughout the country. Determining a workable resolution to these issues requires considering both the origins and shortcomings of current laws as applied to drones, as well as the unique capabilities and applications for drones now and in the future. This article briefly reviews the history of airspace property rights and how previously unresolved issues are being raised again in response to expanding drone use. The article then examines whether drone regulation is properly a federal or state issue before discussing recent California drone legislation. The article concludes by proposing that legislation beyond existing law is needed to create bright-line rules for protecting airspace rights up to a specified height above private property. This type of bright-line rule will not only give needed assurances to property owners about their airspace rights, but also facilitate greater support for, rather than opposition to, further development and application of drone technology across a variety of industries.

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