Drones & Private Property

Shortly after publishing our piece on Drones in our June newsletter, combined with the piece on Club Mission, a reader raised an interesting question:

Should Private Clubs adopt a rule that drones shall not be permitted to operate above their property without club permission? 

My initial answer was: “Well, first I’m not sure the rule would really matter if it related to non-members.  I don’t know what laws exist that might make it trespassing, but if the club is located in a restricted airspace that can be an issue.  Personally, I wouldn’t fly mine over any course without permission, but on the other hand adding more rules to private clubs is usually (not always) a bad thing.  Private clubs are dying under their own rules because young people want to avoid more rules.  If I were on the board of a club (which I avoid at all costs) I would simply wait until someone flies a drone over, and if it creates a problem simply ask the members to please contact the club before flying over the property and make sure anyone that does is licensed and insured.”

This issue is not limited to private clubs, or even golf courses.  It’s really an issue of private property rights and airspace.

In any event, I decided to look into it.

Drones are subject to a variety of rules which are summarized below:

  • Can only be operated during daytime or civil twilight while with appropriate anti-collision lighting.
  • Should only be operated up to a maximum of 400 feet above the ground level. If operated from a structure, it should be within 400 feet of the structure
  • Should not be operated from moving aircraft
  • Should not be operated from a moving vehicle unless it’s being operated over sparsely populated areas.
  • The UAV should only be operated when weather visibility is of 3 miles from the control station.
  • With an ATC permission, it can be operated in class B, C, D and E airspace.
  • Can be operated in class G airspace even without ATC permission.
  • While in operation, the UAV must remain Visual-Line-Of-Sight.

Furthermore, for any commercial purposes (including one’s employment) the drone pilot must be certified under FAR (Federal Aviation Regulations) Part 107.  So, assuming one is so certified, the question of flying over private property comes up.

A close study of the FAR brings forth the fact that there is no mention of limitations of flying over private property. Where does this leave property owners (including private clubs) whose properties do not lie within the restricted airspace? Are they able to claim any property right on the space surrounding their property? These are some of the questions the FAA left unanswered.

Right now, it’s not clear whether one is allowed to fly a drone over private property. If, however the FAA owns the aerospace individuals cannot claim ownership.

This means that one cannot deny or grant permission over their airspace. All is not lost, though, for the property owner.  A complaint could be based on grounds that;

  •  The drones are causing a nuisance
  • They are being flown recklessly
  • They are violating the state privacy law

If a drone lands or takes off from the property without permission, the operator can be sued for trespass. There are local laws that prohibit the operation of UAVs over cities. Thus, knowing those laws is advised for both drone pilots and property owners.

In 2013 Oregon passed a law that lets a landowner sue if someone flies a drone below 400 feet over private property more than once without permission.  Since drones are required to remain under 400′ AGL, Oregon seems to have settled the issue.  Whether other states will do the same remains to be seen.