Craig Ashton and Tim Hodson were in the recording booth for a recent episode of All Things Legal, and Craig led off with a discussion about the first set of drone flight rules to be issued by the federal government: “The Department of Transportation and the FAA came up with the finalized first set of operational rules. [The drone industry] believes that—according to them—there’s going to be about 82 billion dollars… and 100,000 new jobs [generated] over the next 10 years [by the industry]. The new rules take effect in August, and in a nutshell, what they say is a drone must weigh 55 pounds or less [and] can go 100 miles per hour or less…”
Here the conversation broke off for a moment, as Craig and Tim remarked on the fact that the rules, while placing some restrictions on the size and speed of drones, are still remarkably lenient. Craig invited listeners to imagine the consequences of flying “a drone that goes haywire and is 55 pounds… and it’s going 100 miles an hour…”
It’s safe to say that the potential for lawsuits against manufacturers of the drones–as well as against negligent users–is rather self-evident.
Craig went on to remark on the ironies of technology: “Isn’t it funny how technology is taking us towards… driverless cars that are completely safe, and now…”
Tim jumped in to finish Craig’s thought: “Flying missiles! Flying controlled missiles by the public!”
After laughing at the situation, Craig did try to give the FAA and DOT some credit: “The idea is that they’re already out there, so I think it’s good that they’re trying to regulate it.”
Craig then went on to break down the rules: “Basically, you have to be… 16 or older, and then you’ve got to have a remote pilot certificate and a small UAS rating… the unmanned aircraft must weigh less than 55 pounds, you have to have visual line of sight, and may not operate over any person that’s not directly participating in the operation [of the aircraft].” Some of the other requirements of the new rules are that drones can only be flown during daylight or “civil twilight” hours, must yield the right of way to other aircraft, and fly at a maximum altitude of 400 feet.
How the Rules Constrain Proposed Commercial Drone Delivery Systems
Of course, one of the biggest proponents of commercial unmanned aircraft has been Amazon. Since 2013, Amazon has been teasing its ongoing development of Amazon Prime Air, a service that would use drones to deliver select products within 30 minutes of ordering. Amazon would easily meet the weight limits imposed by the new rules, as the hypothetical service would only deliver items under five pounds. However, the company will almost certainly not be happy with some of the other requirements imposed by the new rules.
Craig: “The one part that they tried to address in regards to Amazon and their fulfillment centers and these deliveries says, ‘ Transportation of property for compensation or hire is allowed, provided that the aircraft and its payload [meet all rules], and the flight is conducted within visual line of sight and not from a moving vehicle or aircraft.’ Because what they could do is have a drone which is monitoring the other drones, and they’d have a line of sight on all of them. But that’s not a visual line of sight from the person operating it.”
Insurance Companies Have Tricky Questions to Answer About Drones as Well
While the rules attempt to protect bystanders, the practical realities of drone use mean that accidents are going to happen. People are going to be injured and possessions are going to be damaged. How will these realities be handled?
Tim: “I’m curious to see how homeowner’s insurance is going to change, because this is going to need to start being written into people’s policies. How else are you going to be protected if that thing does break down… and comes down in the middle of a soccer game, or on top of someone’s car and breaks a window, etc. [Drone pilots are] going to be responsible for that, that’s your property that you’re operating.”
The Safety of Drones Will Be Determined By the Caution of their Pilots
As with any activity that involves human interaction, accidents will happen. But the frequency of accidents involving drones will be defined by the caution and respect that pilots show for their drones. If you own a drone, please be careful and avoid using them around other people or their property. With the advent of these new regulations, hazardous use of a drone will be a violation of federal law, which can carry potentially serious consequences.
Please note that the FAA now requires people who own unmanned aircraft weighing more than 0.55 pounds (8.8 ounces, or 249.5 grams) to register them with the FAA. Smaller craft that fall under the minimum weight limit (these smaller devices are often referred to as ‘quadcopters’) are not subject to the registration requirement. Additional information on registration requirements can be found on the FAA’s site here.
Also, many of the new regulations only apply to the commercial use of drones. Hobbyists can fly aircraft up to 55 pounds without a remote pilot certificate as long as they stay at least five miles away from airports, maintain line of sight and follow other safety requirements, and properly register their aircraft. However, as noted above, such hobbyists are liable for any damage or injury that they cause.