Balancing Free Market Drone Growth and Private Property Rights

By Matthew Nicaud
December 9, 2021

The drone market has expanded exponentially in recent years, and it's no secret that the amount of drones in the sky has grown with it. As drones increase, potentially conflicting interests between property owners and drone operators could escalate. However, sound public policy could help alleviate these conflicts.

By their very nature, drones frequently fly over property boundaries for a variety of purposes. This makes them not too dissimilar to a plane in some ways. However, the differences between drones and their larger counterparts is the height above the ground that many fly, and the capacity of drones to be a nuisance to property owners in some instances. While the Federal Aviation Administration has generally held that crewed planes cannot fly below 500 feet, many drones fly at heights that are far lower.

This is where the issue of air property rights comes in, and with it, the need to achieve a balance between property rights and economic freedom for drone operators. While the issue of low altitude drone flights and property rights is complex, a basic starting point would be for the state to clarify the rights of property owners and drone operators.

The state of Mississippi does not currently have any provisions that address the issue of drones and property rights. Instead, the state only refers to property rights in the traditional context of physical property. Not only can this leave drone operators with an ambiguous understanding of the property boundaries, but it is also unclear for property owners as well. This leads to confusion.

For instance, it is a federal crime to destroy a drone (such as with a firearm), since the FAA considers it the same as shooting down a plane. Yet, the state-level air property law uncertainty can get especially complex when considered in light of the Mississippi trespassing law. State policy gives property owners the right to confront intrusions on their physical property and even destroy blatant intrusions in some cases. This can lead to mistaken notions that property owners can destroy drones flying over their property.

In order to clear up this ambiguity, state lawmakers should consider the concept of defining air property rights. Air property rights have been statutorily defined in several states, with the explicit purpose of providing clarity for drone operators and property owners.

While there is some level of debate on how far above the ground a drone can fly before it becomes an infringing nuisance on property rights, some have suggested a range between 200 and 300 feet as the upper boundary of air rights. In this way, drones would not be forced into manned aircraft space (typically above 500 feet) in order to respect such air property rights. At the same time, property owners and drone operators could have a mutual understanding of where their rights are. Both parties would be aware of their lines and legal rights, which they could mutually use to their advantage in a legal context.

Mississippi state-level policy needs an air property statute that is workable for drone operators and property owners. Modern technological questions need to be addressed in a relevant way that does not rely on ambiguous physical trespass laws. Mississippi needs drone policies that accommodate the principles of free-market growth and individual property rights. A statutory definition of air property rights could be a key step in achieving that fine balance.


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