Last week the media reported on two specific drone or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) flights that highlight the issues that are being faced when it comes to operation of UAS. One happened at 2,300 above ground in March of this year but is only being reported just now (see Near Mid-Air Collision Emphasizes Need for Drone Regulations, New Technology). The other instance occurred in St. Louis, Missouri when a partially broken UAS was found on the 30th-floor balcony of a building.
While the image of a larger UAS may be what many people think about (especially given media reports on military drones), when they think UAS, the reality is that much of the debate going on currently in the U.S. is in regard to much smaller aircraft. The UAS that was found in St. Louis weighs in at less than 3 pounds and according to its specs can fly for 25 minutes on four AA batteries. Additionally, these small UAS are relatively affordable. Again, the UAS found broken in St. Louis retails for less than $1,000.
While the FAA continues to hold that UAS cannot be used for commercial purposes, the FAA’s enforcement of such position has been challenged (and it seems that commercial operations are being conducted in spite of the FAA). After an administrative judge sided against the FAA, the FAA is appealing that decision. This may be giving a false sense of the ability to fly UAS for commercial purposes lawfully. Put aside for a minute the fact that the FAA has appealed the administrative law judge’s decision and that at some point the FAA will enact regulations, it is not just the FAA that operators (whether commercial operators or hobbyists) need to be concerned with.
As often happens when technology outpaces our legal system, the law (including the FAA) is going to play catch-up regarding the use of these small UAS. And accidents (similar to what happened in St. Louis) and annoyed neighbors are likely going to be what gives rise to a new body of law. The implications are broad reaching. Some of the issues that come to mind are: trespassing, personal property damage, negligent operation, privacy, identification of the owner and operator, and the adjustment of certain criminal codes. And this does not even touch on the topic of insurance (either insurance requirements for operators or whether business or homeowner’s policies cover current operations).
There is no debate that there are many commercial applications for these small UAS (real estate photos, news coverage, agriculture, shooting movies and countless others) and that small UAS can be just really cool new tech toys, but there are risks to operation. Given the current state of the legal climate regarding UAS, it is definitely a flyer-beware time.