Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology channel. He’s the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology.
My poor kitten, who my unfortunate Instagram contacts know too well, gets beat up every time he goes outside. There’s a bully cat in the neighborhood who appears to relish in attacking cute, fluffy things as soon as they get out of human oversight. So, naturally, I bought a Parrot AR.Drone.2.0, a remote-controlled quadcopter with an HD camera attached, to see if I could spot where the punk bully cat hangs out.
After some training runs in which I crashed the little UAV every fifteen seconds, I started to get the hang of where to push on my iPad to get the little AR.Drone to go the way I desired. And then, dodging trees and power lines, I sent the machine flying higher in the sky and scooted towards the fence, popped over it, and — terrified of crashing in territory I didn’t control — sped back across to the safety of my own backyard, and engaged the automatic landing sequence.
Technically, I’d gone over the fence line, and if I’d done so on foot, intentionally, I would have nominally been guilty of trespassing. But if I were flying in a helicopter, a few hundred feet up, I would *not* have been guilty of trespassing. So, what about the air in between?
There aren’t many specific laws or cases on the books to address my specific situation, but we do know that the idea of airspace has changed in the decades since humans started flying around.