Aerial drones are usually reliable, and in the hands of an experienced operator are brought home with sufficient battery power in reserve. However, there may be circumstances when the aircraft can’t be brought home and it lands on private property. Does the private property owner have a lawful claim on your drone? In Part 1, we review your recovery options in relatively cooperative, no-harm circumstances. In Part 2, we’ll review your recovery options in less-than-friendly circumstances.
What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
First, let’s review some of the circumstances that are covered in this blog: (1) unexpected mechanical failure, such as a battery issue, electronic failure, or motor/propeller malfunction; (2) loss of control, such as an automatic return to home at too low of an altitude and it crashes into an object; or (3) forced landing due to an exhausted battery.
Please note there are a number of circumstances not covered in this blog. Primarily, these are activities that might deprive the property owner of the full enjoyment of their land, including evidence of: (1) the drone is causing a nuisance: (2) being flown recklessly; or (3) violating a state privacy law. For whatever reason an aircraft may come down under these circumstances, your rights may be compromised. Please read my blog on flying over private property. In addition, if your aircraft enters controlled airspace and a law enforcement or military activity takes it down, you’ll have an uphill battle getting it back.
Do You Still Own Your Drone?
Case law is well settled that ownership of your property is retained, regardless of where that property may be situated. Conversion of lost property doesn’t occur unless it remains unclaimed by the owner. So, for a property owner to cite conversion (that is to assume ownership), they must post a notice of “found property” or turn it over to law enforcement for a period of time, typically 3 months.
So yes, you have the right to recover your aircraft from a property owner. This doesn’t mean that you can intentionally trespass, especially if the owner is standing there with a shotgun, or there are other obstacles such as dangerous animals. But you do have the right to ask for the return of your property.
How Do You Get Your Drone Back?
If you know where it landed, then you should introduce yourself to the property owner, identify yourself as the drone owner, and ask for its return. The owner may be annoyed, but a reasonable explanation of how it ended up on their property will be helpful. Further, if it has an FAA registration number and other identifying information, then you have established your right of ownership. Don’t forget that your controller also establishes ownership, simply proven by operating the drone; e.g. moving the camera, starting the motors, etc.
Of course, there may be other scenarios where the property owner is less cooperative. These include situations where your aircraft is stuck in their tree, on their roof, or has caused damage. There may also be scenarios where the property owner is just plain uncooperative. We’ll address those in Part 2.