For the first time in what seemed like ages, Waxahachie resident Chris York and his wife Jackie York had the house to themselves. What better opportunity would there be for a romantic evening in their own hot tub.
“We normally have a house full of kids over here, so we went out to the hot tub,” Chris said. “That was about 6-6:15 p.m. and we had only been in there maybe 10 minutes and we start hearing this loud buzzing noise.”
Chris thought the noise came from the airfield down the road, but his wife was the first one to spot it. It wasn't a plane she saw, but a drone with a camera, hovering about 50 feet above the two of them, Chris in his swim trunks and Jackie in a bikini.
Irritated by what he felt was an invasion of privacy, Chris grabbed his shotgun, ran out of the house and chased the drone back to its operator ― threatening to shoot it out of the sky.
That was Oct. 18. He's now one of two men in the county who are wondering whether laws about privacy and unmanned aircrafts have caught up with technology and whether drones should be more regulated. The other is Ellis County District Attorney Patrick Wilson, who had a drone with a camera crash land in his backyard Oct. 26.
“Did I tell you my kids were afraid bad guys were watching us? I was eating dinner with my boys, and after I calmed down and we were finishing dinner, I was explaining to them the concept of privacy. That's a hard thing for a 6-year-old,” Wilson said the morning of Oct. 27. “I said it's just nobody's business what we're doing in our backyard. I said it doesn't matter what we're doing, it's just nobody else's business and whoever is flying that wouldn't want us to come and see what's going on in their backyard. My 6-year-old, who generally carries the weight of the world on his shoulders, started crying and said, 'What if a bad guy was watching us?' That really broke my heart and I had to assure him that wasn't the case. I don't know, I just got his mind onto something else as quickly as possible. It did illustrate the potential risks involved with this technology. It's a reality, however unlikely that may be, that can't be discounted entirely.”
Both men responded differently to the situation. Wilson turned the drone into Waxahachie police and waited for someone to claim it, and York, who still feels the anger from the invasion, sent a letter to the drone owner by mail after threatening to shoot the drone down in person, to try and reach a mutual understanding that the act was wrong, and indeed an invasion of privacy. But both men are still wondering what could be done if incidents like this continue, they said.
Chris did speak to Waxahachie police after the incident to find out, and was told Waxahachie police have no local jurisdiction to enforce laws that might have been broken because it's an Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issue, which is why he hasn't filed charges yet, he said. But Waxahachie Lt. Todd Woodruff, who heads the criminal investigation unit for the department, said that's not necessarily the case. Drone encounters might still be more of a rare situation to deal with, Wilson said, adding when he called the non-emergency number to turn the drone in, the dispatcher on the other end sounded more intrigued by the matter than anything. In the past year, Waxahachie police have only responded to three drone calls, Woodruff said as far as he's aware.
“Merely flying a drone is not illegal. Depending on the circumstances of the call , we may try to determine who is flying it,” he said. “Most drones in the civilian market have only about 30 minutes battery life.”
As of 2013, however, Texas laws were implemented when it came to what images a drone could capture. Image is defined by the Texas Privacy Act as any capturing of sound waves, thermal, infrared, ultraviolet, visible light or other electromagnetic waves, odor or other conditions on land or buildings. Under Texas Government Code 423.003, laws exist that police can try to enforce when it comes to unmanned aircrafts, the legal team for “drone”:
“A person commits an offense if the person uses an unmanned aircraft to capture an image of an individual or privately owned real property with the intent to conduct surveillance on the individual or property captured in the image.”
“So, it's a potential criminal matter in that sense and a person should report it to police,” Wilson said. “But there is kind of a defense, and it says if a person, as soon as they realize they broke the law, and they destroyed the image and didn't distribute it any further, than they're off the hook, so to speak.”
That doesn't solve the issue of feeling invaded, Wilson said and Chris and Jackie know that all too well.
“It just hovers over the hot tub, and I thought to myself, 'Are you kidding me?' It sat there long enough for me to get irritated,” Chris said. “It was a minute or two, and at that point I decided I was going to go in and get my shotgun and I'm going to take this out of the sky, because my concern was my wife was sitting in the hot tub in her bikini and some person I don't know ― I don't know anyone around here who flies a drone and I didn't know what kind of deviant behavior might be going on the other end of that drone. So I went to our safe, got out a shotgun and by the time I went back out there, the drone was flying away.”
Chris hopped in his truck and drove about a quarter of a mile down his road to confront the man behind the drown. The Daily Light was still trying to reach out to the operator as of press time, but has not been able to reach him. Nor has Chris received a response as of Friday to the letter he followed up with.
“I was very aggressive, because I was pretty ticked off at the time, given his behavior. I asked him, 'Is there any reason you're flying your drone over our hot tub with my wife and I in it?' His initial response was he couldn't see anything.”
So, Chris asked the man again, and this time, the man said FAA airspace is free. But Chris didn't like the answer, and threatened again to shoot it out of the sky if the drone returned.
Actually, as of March 2015, FAA regulations state the following about unmanned aircrafts, according to the FAA website:
•Fly below 400 feet and remain clear of surrounding obstacles
•Keep the aircraft within visual line of sight at all times
•Remain well clear of and do not interfere with manned aircraft operations
•Don't fly within 5 miles of an airport unless you contact the airport and control tower before flying
•Don't fly near people or stadiums
•Don't fly an aircraft that weighs more than 55 pounds
•Don't be careless or reckless with your unmanned aircraft – you could be fined for endangering people or other aircraft.
“To be completely honest, when Chris went into defense mode, I thought he looked cute,” Jackie said, adding she was in a relaxed mood when she realized what was going on. “That's his role. He's very much a protector and provider for our household, and it totally pushed that button for him.”
But both feel the moment was intentional.
“It flew right to us. It stopped almost in just perfect view of us and just stayed there,” Jackie said.
“There's an 88-acre field behind our house, it wasn't like he was just out there exploring anything. It flew on a direct line to our backyard, stopped over our hot tub and just sat there,” Chris emphasized, adding he's reached out to the FAA about the incident, but has not received a response yet there either.
The Daily Light reached out to FAA media relations officials on Oct. 27, who said they could only speak on background when it came to the topic of whether the law has caught up with technology, and what the general public could do in a situation like this. Yet, a further response was not received by press time at 5 p.m. Saturday.
Going back to Texas laws, Wilson said it's a class C misdemeanor simply for capturing the image. But if the image is distributed in any way, that charge then becomes a class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail, Wilson said. This doesn't include any civil action a person can take if someone violates Texas Privacy Act Code 423.003 and the act or violation was done maliciously, he said.
“It's my understanding the FAA has been weighing in and is about to propose some operational rules for the use of these drones because the number of sightings by commercial and professional pilots of these drones is exploding exponentially, from what I gather,” Wilson said. “I think it's just another example of laws not keeping up the pace with technology. I think this technology is growing faster than anyone anticipated and it's cheaper and its widely available to anybody who has a few hundred dollars to burn. What you've really got to balance though is public safety versus the privacy interest. I don't think anybody disputes the privacy interest involved here, but the common reaction is ― and I've heard this a hundred times ― I'd shoot that thing out of the sky. Well, I completely sympathize with that, especially after what happened to me last night in my own home, but you can't have people in populated areas just firing guns in the air at what might be an innocent hobbyist who's just flying his airplane.”
There are laws about discharging weapons in city limits, Woodruff and Wilson emphasized. Discharging firearms in the city limits is prohibited in most cases, Woodruff said, adding there's the possibility of being charged with deadly conduct or criminal mischief. A person could also face vandalism charges if they damage someone’s property,whether it be crashing a drone into someone’s window or damage caused by a recklessly discharged firearm, he said.
Though Wilson guessed as technology evolves, there will be a greater recognition by society about privacy that extends from the ground up, he said.
“It used to be that you had the 6-foot or 8-foot privacy fence you had put up, and nobody could see what was going on,” Wilson said. “I'm hopeful that as this develops, people are going to acknowledge they're not allowed to send the drones over that fence or this fence, and practically speaking, it's going to make it kind of difficult to fly those around.”
But there are benefits to drone use, and those benefits could be used to investigate scenes or even save a person's life, Wilson, Chris and Woodruff all agreed. The Waxahachie Police Department does not currently have a drone, although one could be handy for getting aerial photographs of accident scenes and outdoor crime scenes, Woodruff said. In most cases, police would still need to apply for a search warrant in the event they were using a drone to gather evidence on someone. But one county over to the west, in Johnson County, firefighters are learning how to operate drones in case they can't get out to someone in need during a high water rescue, according to an article by NBC 5. At least as of Oct. 23, the firefighters were learning how to drop ropes and life vests with the drones to someone caught in a rushing current, the article stated.
"It's a very high-tech way of doing something primitive," Expert drone operator and instructor Garret Bryl stated in the NBC 5 article "But we can do it with much more accuracy. Firefighters for ages have practiced throwing a rescue line or a preserver down a river or across a creek to save someone, but it's an imperfect science. With this drone, I usually can drop a preserver within a few inches of where I want it to be."
There's also the commercial benefit, said Steve Patterson, a professional photographer from Red Oak and avid drone user for the past year. Patterson uses what he calls a Quadcopter or SUAV (small unmanned aircraft vehicle), which has four propellers.
“It allows me to capture architectural shots and landscape photos like never before. Ground based sunrises and sunsets for example, can be very nice. However, take that same beautiful sunrise or sunset 60-100 feet in the air, and they become breath-taking,” Patterson said. “For example, during a home Red Oak High School freshman football game, a deck of clouds were rolling in and I was able to get my 'quad' in the air behind the stadium and capture an amazing sunset with the football stadium lights on while the sky was turning bright orange and red. Something you just can’t get standing at ground level. At this point in time, I don’t use my quadcopter for commercial purposes due to ever-changing FAA guidelines on commercial operations. That will likely change in 2016 though with new regulations. I do see aerial photography/video becoming part of my commercial photography which is one of the main reasons I’ve jumped in now.”
And one of those “ever-changing” guidelines may soon involve the FAA requiring recreational drone users to register their aircrafts. At least 1 million drones are expected to be bought this Christmas, according to an article by Forbes.com, which focuses on business and financial news. That puts the privacy issue back in the spotlight, to which Patterson said he can understand that concern. But that stopping to think about it all helps put the concerns into perspective considering the the average person during an average day is photographed and or in video nearly every day of their lives, he said.
“For me to actually get a recognizable photo of a person, I would need to be within about 10-15 feet of the person during the daylight. I guarantee that person would know it was there; they are noisy and have flashing lights making it easy to see,” he said. “I can use Google Earth and see more details of my backyard from space than I can with my drone 30 feet in the air. I can take a photo with my pro dSLR and lens from over 100 yards away and tell you the color of that person’s eyes. The cameras on or used with the majority of these aircraft are not all that great. Yes, they can take amazing landscape video and photos, but when zoomed on a computer screen, they are very pixilated.”
Forcing the registration of drones won't prevent someone from doing something stupid or reckless with their drone, just like gun registration doesn't prevent people from using guns to commit crimes or just like registering a car does not prevent DUIs, he added.
“How will they get people like me, that all ready have one, to register? Is local law enforcement being trained on how to interrupt these new laws or regulations? What if you buy a used one? Will they be registered at the store it was purchased at? What about online sales?” Patterson said. “What about all the kids that will get a drone as a gift? There are so many questions and reasons why forced registration will likely be a fiscal and likely cost us (the tax payers) millions on something that will not solve a perceived problem. In the case of drones, education is by far the best solution. There are far more responsible drone operators than not that are creating jobs and making a living (or supplementing their income).”
And becoming educated is what Wilson and Chris both hope others will consider looking into when it comes to drones. Though Chris is still waiting on his return response to the drone operator who invaded his privacy, Wilson on the other hand has met up with the operator whose drone landed in his yard. The operator's drone apparently got swept up in a gust of wind and flew beyond the expected range from the remote, Wilson said, adding the man was a nice guy and the two shared a laugh about the incident.
Chris on the other hand said he's still frustrated from the situation, and it may take some time to move past the feeling of being bombarded on in his own backyard.
“Anybody who loves their wife, loves their family ― I can't imagine them not being frustrated in that situation,” he said. “To me, the only thing that's different than having an actual peeping tom on your property in this instance is the fact that it's technologically and legally supported. That's the only difference.”