Open Season On Drones? Licenses To Hunt Unmanned Aircraft In Colorado

By Emma Koch - NBC33
By Nidhi Subbaraman - NBC News

Open Season On Drones? Licenses To Hunt Unmanned Aircraft In Colorado

August 9, 2013 Updated Aug 9, 2013 at 10:21 AM EDT

COLORADO (NBC News) -- A town called Deer Trail, located an hour east of Denver, Colo., is considering issuing a novel kind of hunting permit. If passed, the town would give residents licenses to "kill" drones ... by shooting them out of the air.

A vote held on Tuesday night found the town board split 50-50 over passing a local law that would let people apply for $25 drone hunting licenses, and exchange their spoils for a $100 bounty. The next vote will involve residents of the town, according to NBC affiliate station 9News, and is due to take place later this year.

So why would you want to take out a drone? Deer Trail resident Phillip Steel, who drafted the ordinance, has called his initiative a "symbolic" stance against government surveillance. But experts are concerned about the move, citing numerous legal and safety concerns that could assail the town and its shooters, licensed or otherwise.

"Generally our view is that it is a relatively reckless and irresponsible proposition," Benjamin Miller, Unmanned Aircraft Program Manager at the Mesa County Sheriff's Office in Colorado, told NBC News. Miller has directed operations in which the office's two police drones have helped find missing people, survey landfills, and conduct an aerial thermal read of a burning church.

Ryan Calo, assistant professor of law at the University of Washington, calls the town's reaction a "cowboy instinct." Coming from a town that calls itself home of the world's first rodeo, that may not be far from the truth. "It's showmanship — it's just all flash," he told NBC News.

And drone owners are probably legally protected, regardless of the town's ordinances. If you were flying a drone above Deer Trail and someone shot it down, "you would have recourse against the individual who shot it down, probably recourse against the city," Calo said. Just consider the case of the Texas farmer David Lefler who was arrested after shooting down a $12,000 model aircraft with an 82-inch wingspan.

Also, the permission to shoot a drone may not be the town's to give away. "I don't see where the authority comes from, where a local municipality could empower people to shoot down drones," Calo pointed out. Unlike a deer in a local park, drones are private property and airspace is regulated by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration rather than local authorities.

The FAA caught wind of the town's proposal, and issued a statement warning about the legal implications of harming an aircraft, as well as the safety considerations of a crashing chunk of metal. "Shooting at an unmanned aircraft could result in criminal or civil liability, just as would firing at a manned airplane," the FAA clarified in a statement emailed to NBC News.

While high-flying Predators and Reapers are harder to bring down, the smaller helicopter-style crafts that police departments are beginning to use could be crippled. "If you think about it, small unmanned aircrafts are about the size of birds, and we fly them at the altitudes of birds. It's technically possible," Miller said, clarifying that it is illegal to damage property that belongs to the Mesa County Sheriff's office — drones included.

This isn't the first time a drone hunting issue has been brought up in a public forum. During a drone privacy hearing in May, Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, asked a panel of drone and privacy experts if it was possible to shoot a drone down over one's property.

Miller has heard tongue-in-cheek references to drone hunting before — the machines have their vocal opponents, among them privacy advocates who are concerned about the government's use of surveillance drones.

But he'd "never dreamed of this kind of thing becoming a reality," until the Deer Trail proposal came to his attention. "When I first saw this I thought, 'You've got to be kidding me,'" he said. "I mean, wow."

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