As Amazon works to launch a fleet of delivery drones, one man in Colorado is making it his mission to shoot them down—legally.
Philip Steel, whom Stephen Colbert has deemed a “courageous patriot,” has never seen a drone. But he’ll be ready when he does. In the next few years, Steel postulates, commercial drones will be Enemy No. 1. Hovering a few feet in the air, they’ll watch, record, and analyze Americans’ every move. Call yourself a non-smoker on your health insurance? A surveillance drone will soon prove you wrong, he says.
On Tuesday, Steel’s hometown of Deer Trail, Colorado, (population: 532) was poised to vote on an ordinance he wrote in July, one that would legalize drone-hunting licenses and allocate “bounties” for people who shoot down the aircrafts. Owing to a citizen protest, which moved the issue to district court, the vote has been postponed to April 2014.
“It’s been a joyous couple months,” Deer Trail’s town clerk and treasurer Kimberley Oldfield joked to The Daily Beast Tuesday. “Nobody wants to take on Phil, so they take on me.”
What makes taking on Steel so difficult, in part, is that his staunch defense of the proposed ordinance is based on some inaccurate assumptions. According to Steel, the FAA’s 2012 Reform and Modernization Act (PDF), set to take effect in September 2015, will permit civil unmanned aircraft systems to infiltrate private airspace, all the way down to ground level. An alarming thought indeed, but one not based in reality. Drones won’t be flying over our backyards anytime soon—if ever.
The FAA’s legislation, which focuses on regulating large drones which will fly alongside the likes of 747s, will not allow these drones to fly below the national airspace (which begins at 400 feet). And it will only allow small ones to fly on a stringent case-by-case basis—for reasons like agricultural research, archeological mapping, and rescue efforts. Surveillance drones won’t be permitted to enter that zone without first obtaining an authorization certificate, which can take months.
The courageous patriot, it seems, is fighting an enemy that doesn’t exist. (Steel could not be reached for comment.)
Despite these facts, Steel’s fight to shoot down the commercial drones of the future rages on. The tagline on his website, which he launched in July, reads: “If you don't want your drone to go down, don't fly it in town!!!!!” On his site, he sells $25 homemade “licenses” to shoot and kill drones (they bear no actual authorization).
“The federal government will control all [with drones],” Steel writes on DroneShooter.com. “We will serve a ruling elite who has already exempted themselves from any laws that they may pass.” The list of freedoms we’re in danger of losing, in Steel’s eyes, are endless. “‘Do you like to shoot? Hunt? Play softball?’” he asks. “‘Do you want to build a house or barn?’”
Beyond uprooting our basic human freedoms, Steel predicts the drones will be used to enforce “any law.” Including, he told Colbert, “Obamacare.”
For many in the unmanned aircraft community, Steel’s mission seems ridiculous. Beyond the fact that he’d be shooting down drones that may be used for good—archeological mapping, crop dusting, rescue efforts—founder of the Professional Society of Drone Journalists Matthew Schroyer worries about safety. “I wonder about the safety of discharging weapons in public in the open air and the consequences of falling drones on property and individuals,” Schroyer notes. “I think that the reality of drones that we might see it in the future will become more associated with farming equipment,” he zYz. Meaning the good of these drones—below 400 feet or otherwise—is likely to outweigh the bad.
Tuesday’s vote on the ordinance wouldn’t have been the legislation’s debut. Steel unveiled his pride and joy in front of the town council in an unforgettable performance earlier this year that included a costume, nerf gun, and the theme song to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. (The performance was captured by The Colbert Report; it begins at 4:55).
The town council members, whose expressions range from baffled to disturbed in the video, ended their vote in a tie—leaving the final decision up to the town itself. But as the December 10 vote neared, town resident Jessica Stoumbaugh felt it was a verdict too big to put in the hands of the 523 residents of the Deer Trail. So Stoumabugh launched a citizen protest, which eventually landed it in district court. Now, Deer Trail town clerk Kimberly Oldfield says, the district judge will need “a final finding of petition sufficiency,” in order to set the election. “The town board would like to see it go to the people,” she says.
While the court wrestles with the handling of the ordinance, Phil Steel’s likely to be found perched on the tree-house like structure he’s built to practice shooting drones with a shotgun. Perhaps repeating the message he sent to Obama during his Colbert special: “Go back to Kenya.”
A statement nervously followed by his own question: “He’s from Kenya, right?”