Drones: A New Legal Frontier (Part 1: FAA Regulations)

by Brian Casserly & Cecelia Harper

From expediting online order deliveries to gathering aerial information of farmers' fields with previously unseen economic and technological efficiencies, the drone industry could be the root of the next commercial revolution.  Drones, also called UAVs (Unmanned Aircraft Vehicles), were historically developed for military use, but we will likely see their commercial use increase exponentially as global businesses are expected to invest nearly $90 billion in drone technology in the next ten years.  Even if you or your company is not on the forefront of drone technology development, you should be aware of the implications of using a drone in connection with your business (or even recreationally).  

FAA’s Regulatory Involvement

Because drones operate in the same airspace as all other manned aircraft, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulates their use.  Unless approved by the FAA, your drone may legally be used only for recreational purposes, as long as your drone is being operated according to the rules.  Included in the recreational use restrictions are rules that prohibit flying your drone out of eyesight, flying above an altitude of 400 feet, and flying within five miles of an airport without notifying its control tower (you can check the no-fly zones here).  However, the line between commercial and recreational use can often be blurry.  For instance, the FAA ruled that using a drone to capture video and then displaying that video on YouTube is illegal because the drone is being used for unauthorized commercial purposes.  

A person or business wanting to use a drone for commercial purposes (deliveries, advertisement, commercial photography or videography, etc.) must obtain approval from the FAA.  Under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, the FAA was given the authority to grant exemptions from certain regulatory requirements, on a case by case basis, for commercial drone use prior to implementation of the final rules regarding the same. Although historically slow, the FAA has recently taken initiatives to expedite it process of review and exemption granting and, as of July 9, 2015, the FAA has granted 746 of such exemptions.  It should be noted that the Section 333 exemption does not alleviate the drone users’ responsibility in regards to certain burdensome requirements, including proper airman certification of the drone pilot. 

Recreational or commercial drone users who do not adhere to the FAA’s regulations are sent cease-and-desist letters and issued fines. In November 2014, the FAA detailed a strict, no-tolerance policy for illegal drone use that listed civil penalties or fines ranging in severity from minimum, moderate, to maximum.  Although the individual fines range from $500 to $1,100, each unauthorized flight may have several separate violations that drastically increase cost of the total fine.  In fact, in 2011 the FAA fined Rapheal Piker $10,000 for a “reckless flight” near the University of Virginia that did not crash or injure anyone. 

New Proposed FAA Regulation

In February 2015, the FAA began the administrative rulemaking process for small drones (you can review the proposed rule here).  The proposed rule expands acceptable commercial uses to crop monitoring and inspection, antennae inspection, aerial photography, wildlife nesting area evaluations, and similar activities, but does not accommodate many other commercial uses, such as Amazon’s proposed delivery service.  The rule also proposes guidelines for drone use, including: 

Operational Limitations:

  • A drone must weigh less than 55 pounds, remain in the operator’s unaided, visual line-of-sight, and may not operate over a person not directly involved with the flight.
  • A drone may fly only during the daylight hours at a maximum speed of 100 miles per hour and at a maximum altitude of 500 feet. 

Pilot Operators:

  • A pilot must be over the age of seventeen, pass an initial FAA test, be vetted by Transportation Safety Admiration (TSA), obtain unmanned aircraft operator certificate, and take a recertification test every two years.
  • A pilot may only operate one drone at a time. 

Aircraft Requirements:

  • Like traditional aircraft, a drone must be registered, display aircraft-like markings, and a pre-flight checked for safety. 

The tug-of-war between the outdated FAA regulations and drone technology along with the blurry lines between recreational and commercial drone use creates a complicated legal climate. 

We’ll follow up with part two regarding legal concerns with drones.  Be sure to check back for more of what you need to know.