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Technology Series No. #2: Drones

The first installment in our September series "Technology and the Law" examined driverless cars and Uber's Pittsburgh Project (see: blog published Sept. 8). This second installment focuses on Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) or drones.

DRONES: THE RISKS

Drones, like autonomous vehicles, are a technological innovation that promise much reward but carry much risk. Accidents and injuries to date have for the most part been few and minor, with the exception of an 18-month-old child in England losing an eye when a neighbor lost control of his drone. However, as drones become more popular (an estimated 700,000 to one million were sold during the 2015 holiday season), some have been interfering with commercial flight space. In March of this year, a drone came within a few feet of hitting an Air France Jet as it was landing at Charles de Gaulle Airport in France. In Britain, such near misses were recorded 23 times between April 11 and Oct 4 of 2015 alone.

In the United States, the issue of drones appearing in the flight paths of commercial planes has become a problem in need of an urgent solution. As of August 2015, nearly 700 "near miss" incidents had been reported for the year, some of which had occurred in highly restricted airspace (e.g. over the White House). In response to drones interfering with flights at La Guardia and JFK airports in New York City and safety concerns regarding drones in general, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has pledged to introduce legislation requiring drone manufacturers to install technology known as "geofencing," which relies on satellite navigation to pinpoint a drone's location to prevent the drone from flying above 500 feet, near airports, or in sensitive airspace. Some manufacturers are incorporating automated geofencing systems in the drones they produce voluntarily. These systems can prevent drones from entering restricted airspace, no-fly zones, and when refined, even from entering temporary no-go zones such as live sporting events, wildfires, presidential motorcades, and other high-profile events.

THE RULES

On August 29, 2016, new FAA regulations applying to drones took effect. The main provisions are as follows: (1) small commercial drone operations are limited to daylight hours; (2) the drones must fly lower than 400 feet of a taller building or tower; (3) the aircraft must remain within sight of the operator or an observer who is in communication with the operator; (4) the operator must be 16 years or older, pass a background check with the TSA, and get certified every 2 years.

Although these rules address some of the concerns regarding drone traffic, they exempt "hobbyists" and by doing so leave a large number of drones unregulated. Furthermore, without the ability to adequately enforce the rules, the skies will not be any safer; right now there are more drones being operated than the FAA can possibly regulate with its current enforcement scheme.

THE REWARDS

Google, Amazon, and Walmart are a few big name retailers pursuing drone technology for future same-day delivery of products purchased by online shoppers. Google has stated that it will have drone delivery by 2017. Amazon stated it would begin its drone delivery from "Amazon Prime Air" as soon as the FAA regulations for drones were issued and effective; since that occurred on August 29, 2016, drone delivery of Amazon products could theoretically occur any time.

However, problems remain to be resolved. The requirement that drones stay 5 miles away from airports excludes a lot of potential shoppers in major metropolitan areas. Heavy products may not yet be able to be carried by drones. And of course there is the market: for what products are people willing to pay an extra fee in order to have same-day delivery? What is the demographic for this market? Assuming that the issues, technology and market develop the way that Google, Amazon, and Silicon Valley thinks they will, the rewards promise to be huge. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a trade group, projects 70,000 jobs and $13.6 billion in economic impact will be created in the U.S. within three years of drones being allowed to fully share the skies.

SAFETY FIRST

But drones should not share the skies until they can do so safely. Operators must be able to control the aircraft so that they do not cause accidents on roadways or in the skies, or cause property damage. If a drone does cause harm, the operator can be held liable.

If you or someone you know has been injured by an accident with a drone, or has suffered property damage due to a drone, contact Dave Thomas at The Thomas Law Firm for a free evaluation of your legal rights.

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