The Rise of the Drones: Experts Discuss Legal Implications of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in Civilian Airspace

The many names may sound intimidating — drones, unmanned aircraft systems, unmanned aerial vehicles — but the public should get used to this technology, because it’s not going anywhere. 

“When you hear the word ‘drone,’ you probably think of a large military weaponized system — something that’s capable of persistent surveillance. That’s just not what we are talking about,” said Ben Gielow, government relations manager and general counsel at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International in Arlington, Virginia. As the aviation industry increasingly embraces drones, their commercial and civilian use will become more and more common in the next few years, according to a panel of experts at a recent American Bar Association (ABA) conference on aviation and space law. (Slack Davis Sanger’ Ladd Sanger was one of the panelists.)

Unmanned aircraft come in all shapes and sizes, have thousands of uses and can be purchased by your average person, said moderator Raymond L. Mariani of Murray, Morin & Herman.

However, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has yet to develop regulations for the commercial use of drones in the U.S. While the FAA allows the recreational use of airspace by model aircraft — though it generally limits operations to below 400 feet above ground level and away from airports and air traffic — the agency specifically excludes individuals or companies from flying these aircraft for business purposes.

The FAA Modernization and Reform Act, passed by Congress on February 14, 2012, requires the agency to integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace system. The law gives the FAA specific deadlines to meet, including the crucial date of September 30, 2015, by which time the FAA must allow for “the safe integration” of drones into the national airspace system.

While two drones have recently gained FAA certification for commercial use, the rest of the sector is stuck on the ground as the FAA works out its plans for integration.

“How many people in here have been filmed by an unmanned aerial vehicle?” asked panelist Ladd Sanger, managing partner of Slack Davis Sanger’ Dallas office.

“Everybody has. Because this entire presentation is being filmed by an unmanned aerial vehicle,” he said, as the sample drone he brought flew into the air for the audience to see. He then crashed it into the floor.

The panelists all agreed that crashes will sometimes happen, regardless of whether the drone’s operator is properly trained.

“They are going to crash, as you’ve seen, and people are going to get injured. So where’s the insurance policy?” Sanger asked. Most homeowners’ insurance and commercial liability policies include an aviation exception, he said, questioning whether drones are covered under this exception.

Sanger also raised questions about what the technology standards would be for drones. Should they have certain safety requirements — parachutes, for example, so they don’t come crashing to the ground or sensors that shut down the drones when they comes too close to objects?

“I submit that it’s going to be a pretty fertile ground because I think a creative plaintiff’s lawyer is going to come up with a system that should have been in it,” he said.

The panel, “The Rise of the Drones: The Anticipated Proliferation of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in Controlled Civilian Airspace,” took place during the ABA Tort Trial and Insurance Practice Section’s Beyond the Horizon: What’s Next in Aviation and Space Law Litigation conference.

Link to full story on the American Bar Association website or watch video highlights.

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