Drones are an amazing piece of technology that lets nearly anybody see the world in a way that was previously reserved for birds or those in an airplane. You can catch stunning sunsets, find hidden natural treasures, or record a cityscape that captures the essence of your hometown. On the flip side, there’s a lot of people who don’t fly their drones in the manner in which they should. They fly above the legal altitude, fly over people, and even encroach on critical infrastructure. These pilots give those who fly legally a bad name, and they can certainly be annoying when they fly over your house. But legally speaking, there’s a difference between being annoying and breaking the law. This is especially true in Michigan, which has some protections in place for those working the sticks. In this article we’ll take a look at the drone laws in Michigan and let you know what they mean to you.
Federal vs State
Before we start, we have to note that we’re not lawyers and what we wrote shouldn’t be construed as legal advice.
In the United States, the federal government has domain over airspace, but there have been legal questions raised as to what airspace directly over property does a landowner control. A previous court case, Boggs v. Meridith, saw a farmer suing an airport over low flying planes causing his chickens to freak out and kill themselves. The federal court ruled in favor of the farmer, who complained that the planes were flying at 83 feet. This could be argued that landowners own the space up to 83 feet above their house. This isn’t set in stone, though, and the matter is still considered a legal gray area.
Because the laws are somewhat questionable, many states have begun enacting laws of their own. Federal law supersedes state law, but in areas where federal law doesn’t apply, state laws can. Thus, we have to look at Michigan’s drone laws, which came into effect in 2017.
Michigan’s Drone Laws
Michigan’s legislature passed their drone laws, and the good news for pilots is that the laws are very friendly for you. The state’s verbiage reads in part:
259.305 Political subdivision; limitations; powers; federal preemption; conflict with other sections of law.
(1) Except as expressly authorized by statute, a political subdivision shall not enact or enforce an ordinance or resolution that regulates the ownership or operation of unmanned aircraft or otherwise engage in the regulation of the ownership or operation of unmanned aircraft.
(2) This act does not prohibit a political subdivision from promulgating rules, regulations, and ordinances for the use of unmanned aircraft systems by the political subdivision within the boundaries of the political subdivision.
(3) This act does not affect federal preemption of state law.
(4) If this act conflicts with section 40111c or 40112 of the natural resources and environmental protection act, 1994 PA 451, MCL 324.40111c and 324.40112, those sections control.
This means that unless the state expressly gives permission to a political subdivision (ie. town, city), then they cannot clamp down on your ability to own or operate a drone. Outside of this, there’s not really much that stands in the way of a drone pilot running their drone the way they see fit.
The only other real regulations that the Wolverine State put in place are that a drone pilot shall not use a drone to subject somebody to harassment, shall not use a drone to violate a restraining order, invade a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy, and not record images or video of someone if you’re a registered sex offender. Of course, there’s also a provision that makes it illegal for a drone pilot to use their drone to interfere with police, paramedics, firefighters, or search and rescue personnel.
Annoyance vs. Harassment
When a drone pilot flies over your property, you oftentimes won’t notice it, especially if they’re using a newer drone that has better props. When you do notice this, the sound can resemble a beehive, which gets lower as the drone comes down to the ground. But is a drone flying over your property harassment? Well, let’s take a legal look:
In Michigan, harassment is defined as: "Harassment" means conduct directed toward a victim that includes, but is not limited to, repeated or continuing unconsented contact that would cause a reasonable individual to suffer emotional distress and that actually causes the victim to suffer emotional distress. Harassment does not include constitutionally protected activity or conduct that serves a legitimate purpose.
Annoyance is defined as something that annoys someone or causes a nuisance, which in term is defined as a person, thing, or circumstance that causes inconvenience.
Harassment is illegal in Michigan, while a standard annoyance is not. If you’re legitimately feeling emotional distress from repeated drone flights by the same pilot and can prove it, then you may have a case. The difficulty will be proving that it was the same pilot causing the harassment, while also proving that the harassment is real. You’ll also have the standard of proving that the conduct doesn’t serve a legitimate purpose. If a drone pilot is Part 107 certified and is flying for a legitimate reason, you may not have a case at all. When you throw in the possibility that the state doesn’t even have legal jurisdiction, things get even harder.
Drone laws in Michigan are very friendly toward pilots, as there is very little that is actually spelled out as being illegal for a pilot to do. Unless you intentionally harass someone, violate privacy, are a sex offender, or interfere with first responders, you have a lot of leeway.