“Look — up in the sky! It’s a bird, it’s a plane — No, it’s a…Predator drone, which nailed you because you wouldn’t return your neighbor’s cattle after they wandered onto your property.”

That’s the lead of a report in Forbes magazine concerning the first person caught for cattle rustling after being identified by drone.

Rodney Brossart, a North Dakota cattle rancher, was sentenced last month to three years in prison for terrorizing police officers who tried to arrest him, with all but six months of his sentence suspended.

Back in June 2011, according to news reports, police attempted to arrest Brossart because he wouldn’t return six head of cattle that had wandered onto his property from that of his Grand Forks, N.D., neighbor. This resulted in what a US News and World Report story called “an armed standoff between Brossart, his three sons and a SWAT team,” which ended only after the family was located by a Predator drone borrowed from U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.

Brossart’s family was allegedly armed with high-powered rifles, and neither party denied that Brossart told police that if they set foot on his property, they would “not [be] walking away.”

Thus, Brossart became not only the first American to be arrested with the help of an unmanned aerial vehicle, he’s now the first man going to jail thanks to the assistance of a drone.

At the time of his arrest, Brossart argued that the use of the drone was illegal, and his attorney, Bruce Quick, told U.S. News that the use of the drone and Brossart’s subsequent tasing constituted “guerrilla-like police tactics” and that the drone was “dispatched without judicial approval or a warrant.

"The whole thing is full of constitutional violations," Quick said. “The drone use is a secondary concern.”

A U.S. District Court judge denied his motion, saying that, “There was no improper use of an unmanned aerial vehicle,” and that the drone “appears to have had no bearing on these charges being contested here.”

Testing the limits

He may be the first, but Brossart certainly won’t be the last guy busted by a drone. The use of drones may be in its infancy, but there will surely be many more cases in the years ahead, as the increasingly sophisticated vehicles find new applications.

Some of them will be tiled to military operations (or combat missions), others for law enforcement or surveillance of border crossings. But with the recent “60 Minutes” segment featuring Amazon’s plans to use mini-drones to deliver packages, civilian uses of drones have also emerged.

For instance: Here’s an example that actually appears to have some merit.

At MIT’s sprawling campus in Cambridge, Mass., a quadcopter named SkyCall is being used on an experimental basis to lead lost visitors to their intended destinations.

A smartphone call by the visitor summons the drone, which then leads the way, while a digital voice track acts as a tour guide, pointing out interesting campus features en route.

If perfected, that technology could spell trouble for the careers of all those ultra-chirpy tour guides at Disney World and similar theme parks.

But more important than buzzing people around a campus somewhere is the potential of drones to advance agricultural productivity — and not just for catching thievin’ rustlers, either.

Thanks to their camera guidance systems, drones are already proving useful to farmers checking soil and crop conditions to precisely monitor irrigation or harvesting activities, as well as in fighting brush fires and forest fires that could threaten grazing lands.

There’s one problem, though: drone technology is racing ahead of both the legal system and our social norms.

Brossart’s was probably not the test case any lawyer would choose in an attempt to force a judicial review of the legality of drone use. Yet that is exactly what is needed to establish parameters for law enforcement to ensure that legitimate surveillance doesn’t turn into indiscriminate snooping.

Catching thieves stealing cattle or illegals crossing the border seems right and proper.

But spying on neighbors, competitors or even enemies with drones may soon be the basis of litigation a lot more challenging than the hapless defense of Randy Brossart.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.