Austin Haughwout, a Central Connecticut State University engineering student, has attracted a lot of attention to his self-built UAS on which he mounted a semi-automatic handgun like the one pictured above. This is not his first 15 seconds of fame due to his drone flying; a year ago, he was assaulted by a woman at a beach where he was flying a drone to take pictures of the bathers. As expected (intended by Mr. Haughwout?), this incident has created a firestorm of publicity about flying an armed civil UAS.
The debate over whether such an attack drone is legal has not touched on the question of whether the FAA’s pending Part 107 NPRM should include a ban on arming a UAS.
The FAA has stated that it is investigating the incident and several reports have concluded that there is nothing unlawful in Hughwout’s firing of a gun from a UAS on his father’s private property. The pilot alleges that the drone flight was a project for his Central Connecticut State University engineering degree.
All pilots are prohibited by 14 CFR §91.15 from allowing “any object to be dropped from that aircraft in flight that creates a hazard to persons or property” unless “reasonable precautions are taken to avoid injury or damage to persons or property.” One could argue that Haughwout, by firing in woods in which no other persons were present complied with the exception.
Much of proposed standards found in the draft Part 107 recognize that the FAA does not have the resources to examine the practical application of those rules to the expected multitude of UAS flights. The arbitrary, but not capricious distinction between operations for “compensation or hire” and recreational is a prime example of the FAA’s reliance on the legal principle of administrative ease. (See especially Las Vegas Hacienda Inc. v. Civil Aeronautics Board 298 F. 2d 430 (USCA 9th Cir. 1962.))
Some might argue that the right to bear arms, found in the Second Amendment, should extend to the legal ability to arm UASs. From a purely aviation safety standpoint, one could argue that the better policy result would be to categorically ban weapons from being mounted on all civilian (exempting police?) drones. As exemplified by this incident in Clinton, CT, a case-by-case analysis of whether “reasonable precautions” were taken would absorb many FAA investigators to decide whether the risks were adequately mitigated. It is hard to imagine the pressures on the FAA if a drone was involved in a fatal accident. Thus a blanket prohibition may be the appropriate response to this safety risk.
The FAA has many, many issues to resolve in its promulgation of a final Part 107; perhaps it should include a regulation which prohibits the inclusion of all weapons on these vehicles.