Teen Builder of Weaponized Drones Battles With FAA Over Regulation

June 10, 2016 Updated: June 10, 2016

In a New Haven courtroom on July 6, lawyers representing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will argue that the federal agency has the right to regulate consumer drones, such as disallowing the mounting of weapons onto drones. The agency’s opponent will be attorneys representing Connecticut student Austin Haughwout, the producer of two controversial drone-related videos.

The issue was first brought to light in July 2015 when Austin uploaded a 15-second YouTube video of a drone mounted with a semi-automatic handgun taking several shots in a wooded area. The video went viral, having now amassed over 3 million views (above video).

In November, Haughwout again uploaded a video titled ‘Roasted the Holiday Turkey’, which features a drone equipped with a makeshift flame thrower roasting a turkey on a spit. The video has over 500,000 views (see video below).

In November, before the publishing of the “Roasting Turkey” video, the FAA had sent Austin and father Bret Haughwout an administrative subpoena asking Austin to attend court and provide information on details regarding the “Flying Gun” YouTube video.

The elder Haughwout declined, replying to the FAA in an email that because he had not committed a crime, he was under no obligation to comply.

After the upload of the “roasting turkey” video, the FAA again reached out to the Haughwouts, but were again disregarded.

Finally, on Feb. 11, 2016, the FAA asked a federal judge to enforce the subpoena and a few weeks later, the Haughwouts and the FAA faced off in Huerta v. Haughwout.

John W. Larson, an Assistant United States Attorney, said that the drones are within FAA’s regulatory reach, as stated in the FAA’s original statute.

“The respondents’ use of a UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System) falls within the scope of the FAA’s authority as set forth in the plain language of the above statutory and regulatory scheme. Specifically, the UAS shown in the respondents’ videos is an “aircraft” because, even though it is unmanned, it is a contrivance/device that is invented, used, or designed to fly in the air.

To which Cerame, the attorney representing the Haughwouts, responded

The present case is one of first impression—no Article III Court has had occasion to examine the scope of the term “aircraft” as used in the FAA organic statute or 14 C.F.R. § 1.1. The statutory definition of aircraft is ambiguous, and the FAA’s construction is patently absurd. Sure, §40102(a)(6) and 14 C.F.R. §1.1 looks simple enough. A thing, any thing, that flies. The verb fly, as in “fly in the air,” is not so plain, though. There is fly in the sense of airborne locomotion, like how birds fly from one place to another. But . . . flags also fly, when attached to a pole, don’t they? We also say that plastic bags or bits of paper carried on the air fly about—isn’t that a motif in American Beauty? And don’t we say that bullets or knives or any airborne dangerous object—don’t they fly through the air too, especially when there are lots of them? Baseballs can go pretty high—we call it a “fly ball.” Okay. For the sake of the argument, let’s imagine the “airborne locomotion” definition is the only one. That leaves . . . Frisbees. Clay pigeons. Paper airplanes. A pole for pole vaulting. A good pair of basketball sneakers. A rubber band. Spitballs. Anything juggled. A birthday balloon. Hand tossed pizza dough. Ceramic plates during a lovers’ spat. Genetically engineered fruit flies, bacteria, pollen. Alright, alright.

Austin Haughwout also appeared at a public hearing in February. He spoke in front of Connecticut legislators who proposed a bill banning the weaponization of drones, a move prompted by Austin’s videos.

“The mere weaponization of any aircraft simply doesn’t cause its own problems, it’s the person’s use of it,” said Haughwout, according to the Hartford Courant.

“If their only intention is to enjoy the technology that they have access to, then there is no public safety hazard,” Haughwout added, emphasizing that the problem lies with intention rather than the object itself.

Connecticut isn’t the first state faced with this issue. North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Oregon have all banned weaponized drones in the past few years.