Can You Shoot Down a Drone?

Drones are the latest craze, and it seems like everyone is using them for fun, for the news, for security, and many other reasons. Soon they will be delivering products to our doors including fresh hot pizzas, fried chicken, clothes, and much more. But what if the drone is being operated by “undesirable” hands?

Set the Scene
It’s late fall, and the local high school championship is underway. The stadium is packed; you are stationed on the sidelines. The sound of a drone fills your ears, and you look up to see one spraying the crowd with some kind of liquid. They start to panic and run, rubbing their eyes, and trying to get away. It sounds a bit far-fetched, doesn’t it? The reality is that drones are already being weaponized in other countries.

Consider these examples:
• US forces reviewed video footage taken by a captured drone that showed it to be armed with bombs that could be dropped on US positions virtually undetected until it was too late. In this particular case, the noise made by the drone gave the soldiers time to shoot it down before it could do its job.

• Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was the victim of an attempted bomb attack by two drones carrying explosives. One hit a building and exploded before it could reach its target, the other got close before detonating.

• Evidence continues to come in that ISIS is finding new ways to weaponize commercial drones for use in terror attacks around the world.

You might think this would give law enforcement officers the right to disable a suspicious drone using technology or other means. To be sure under the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017/2018 the DOD and DOE have the right to ” detect, monitor, and track” and “disrupt control of, destroy, damage, disable, and seize (using reasonable force of course) drones flying over specific facilities.

Not Much You Can Do
Yet as an LEO, you are still unable to legally do anything that might cause damage to or loss of control of any drone, no matter how threatening it might appear. One of the biggest concerns cited for making this decision is the safety of the general public should you “shoot” down or otherwise disable a drone.

Also, because under 49 USC § 40102, drones are considered as and given the same protections as any other type of aircraft. Thus, the shooting down of a drone would be considered aircraft piracy and thus lead to criminal prosecution as such resulting in a prison term of up to 20 years. If the drone is damaged or destroyed, further prosecution for aircraft sabotage under 18 USC § 32 would only add to the sentence.

Even under the scenario, we started with; you are prevented by law from interfering in the operation of the drone. Your only option is to attempt to find the operator of the drone, arrest them, and then shut the drone down. Even if the drone does not appear to be dangerous, you should still monitor it and if you can find the operator, discuss drone safety with them. One last thing to consider, you are permitted to meet a threat with the necessary level of force, but you may have to answer questions later.

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