What happens if you shoot down a delivery drone?

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As wealthy companies like Amazon, Google and Walmart invest and experiment with drone delivery, a phenomenon of this modern age has emerged: drones carrying snacks and other goods are being shot out of the sky.

Such incidents are still rare. However, the recent arrest of a man in Florida who allegedly shot down a Walmart drone raises questions about what the legal consequences will be and whether the consequences could be even more severe if these incidents become more common.

In the Florida case, Walmart was performing deliveries in Clermont, Florida — about 25 miles west of Orlando — when a loud noise was heard as the plane landed. According to the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, the suspect, Dennis Winn, allegedly admitted to shooting down the drone. He reportedly told authorities that this wasn’t his first experience with drones flying over and around his home, leading him to believe that the small, unmanned aircraft may have been spying on him.

The man was charged with discharging a firearm and “criminal mischief” causing damages in excess of $1,000. Walmart claims the total amount of damages was about $2,500, primarily involving the drone’s payload system.

It’s likely that more drones will be shot down, as there are more guns than people in the United States. And while last week’s incident is not without precedent, it’s not entirely clear how severe its consequences could be.

This is mainly because there have been no high-profile cases in which the shooter has received the maximum sentence. However, this may well change, as more multi-billion dollar companies put their airspace at stake. At this early stage, years of R&D costs with very limited scalability means a very high price per drone.

For example, in 2022, Amazon was projected to spend $484 for each delivery made by Prime Air drones. The price has since come down; optimistic projections have the figure dropping to around $63 in 2025. That’s still about 20 times more than the price of the average ground delivery.

Drone delivery also hasn’t grown as quickly as Amazon had hoped. At the time of this writing, Prime Air is only available in one location — College Station, Texas — since it ended operations in California. There are plans to roll out two European locations and another in the U.S. by the end of this year.

Although the use of consumer drones has been on the rise for more than a decade, the question of legal consequences is still not fully clarified.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) gave us a partial answer after the drone shooting down in Arkansas in 2016. At the time, the FAA pointed interested parties to 18 USC 32. The law, called “aircraft sabotage,” focuses on the “reckless destruction of any aircraft within the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States or any civil aircraft used, operated or employed in interstate, foreign or overseas air commerce.”

At first glance, the law appears to focus primarily on manned aircraft, including a provision that makes it a federal crime to commit an act of violence against “any person on board an aircraft, not just crew members, if such act is likely to endanger the safety of the aircraft.” However, in response to the Arkansas drone shooting, the FAA stressed that such protections could be interpreted to include UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) as well. In fact, the language appears to be broad enough to cover drones. This means that, in turn, the penalties are potentially harsher.

The topic was revived after a 2020 incident in Minnesota. In that case, the suspect was charged with felony counts related to criminal damage and discharging a weapon within city limits. These charges can also be brought in most scenarios involving property rather than physical damage, drone or not. Even with these examples, there is no hard and fast rule that predicts if or when prosecutors can also introduce a federal charge like 18 USC 32.

As the legal blog Above the Law points out, in most cases the federal government has deferred to state law for enforcement. Meanwhile, in most cases where 18 USC 32 is applied, if there are any human crew/passengers involved, there may be other potential charges, such as murder. It could certainly be argued that dropping a large piece of hardware from the sky over a densely populated area increases the likelihood of bodily harm, though it may not be prosecuted in the same way.

However, as drone deliveries grow in the US, we may soon get an answer to what role federal laws like 18 USC 32 will play in UAV shootings. Adding this to the picture increases the possibility of penalties including fines and up to 20 years in prison, potentially making those consequences even more complex. However, it is clear that the consequences could be severe, whether or not it is enforced.

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