Reports of incidents involving unmanned aircraft systems (UASs), or drones, are on the rise. In October, for example, a drone crashed into a small passenger airplane as it was approaching the runway at the Jean Lesage International Airport in Quebec City, Canada. Although the airplane was landed safely and there were no reported injuries, the post-collision aircraft inspection revealed damage to one of the plane’s wings. This is the first time a drone has collided with a commercial aircraft in Canada, though pilot sightings of UASs has increased dramatically, at home and abroad, in the recent years.
Drone popularity has risen steeply as commercial users, not only individuals, are finding new and creative ways to incorporate drone usage into their business models. Drones are now used to provide video footage for major news stories. They hover over football players during NFL games. They’re used to film promotional videos for luxury resorts and hotels. They may, someday, be used to ensure same-day delivery of online orders.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), through authority conferred by 49 U.S.C. § 106, implemented regulations known as Part 107 to apply specifically to small unmanned aircraft systems used for purposes other than solely hobby or recreational. These regulations, effective in 2016, provide relevant definitions (small UASs are those weighing less than 55 lbs) and guidelines for operation of UASs. For example, 14 C.F.R. Part 107 requires registration of UASs with the FAA and calls for voluntary reporting of accidents or damage caused by a drone. Similarly, Part 107 requires commercial “flyers” to obtain FAA certificates and prohibits drone usage in certain airspace (e.g., around airports) without the permission of Air Traffic Controllers.
This month, President Trump signed the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act into law, which extends certain requirements to those using model UASs. Although previously exempted from the registration requirement of Part 107, drone hobbyists (those that purchase and use drones for personal, non-commercial use) will be required to provide their name and contact information to the FAA, as well as pay a small fee, to be legally compliant when operating their drones.
While drones offer many benefits across multiple industries, there are still numerous issues to be addressed. There are safety considerations (as evidenced by the airfield collision in Canada), legal considerations (e.g., inability to identify owners of drones involved in accidents or collisions), as well as privacy considerations (e.g., drones used for unknown surveillance of an individual), to name a few. Additionally, the nature and scope of insurance related to drones remains in its early phase.
As drone usage continues to increase, it’s only a matter of time before the common law will develop to address some of these lingering concerns. Insurance coverage, terms and conditions also will impact the nature and extent of protection for those using drones.
The ultimate impact drones will have on our national airspace, and those involved in its regulation, is unknown. We’ll keep our eyes to the sky and provide relevant updates when they become available.