Updated November 29, 2018
Drones—small, remotely-piloted aircraft—have attracted a great deal of attention. While much of the technology they use was initially developed for military applications, drones have since been adapted for other uses, especially once miniature cameras became a standard feature. Drones have become widely used not only in entertainment as remote camera platforms but also in law enforcement and security, agriculture, forestry, animal herding, and even protecting endangered wildlife from poachers.
But drones also have the potential to cause trouble. They can be flown where they aren’t wanted, violating the privacy of others or becoming potential obstacles to larger aircraft. The law in this area is still unsettled, but new regulations have been put in place to attempt to get ahead of the issue before major problems arise.
Only a few years ago, when people talked about drones, they usually meant large, long-range craft used by the military and other government agencies for surveillance and combat operations. These vehicles, also called UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), were expensive to produce and required skilled operators. Some, such as the well-known Predator drone used by the United States military, were larger than small piloted planes: the Predator was 27 feet long with a wingspan of 55 feet.
The Predator entered regular service in 2005 and cost over $4 million per vehicle, not counting the development costs, which was definitely far beyond the typical hobbyist’s budget. But as technology and creativity advanced, drones became much smaller and much less expensive.
By the end of 2015, anyone could walk into an office supply store and choose from a variety of small drones only a foot or two wide for under $100. As of this past holiday season, as many as one million drones might now be in private hands in the United States.
Beginning in December of 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) required all owners of drones weighing more than half a pound to register with the agency or face stiff fines. By late January, almost 300,000 had done so. These registrations apply to the operators of UAS (unmanned aircraft systems, in FAA lingo), not to the drones themselves. These registrations also don’t apply to drones intended for commercial purposes.
Registration is only part of the picture. Drones are already barred by federal regulation from operating near airports and in most of the area over Washington, DC. Additional temporary restrictions are put in place as necessary, such as the 32-mile no-fly zone radius around February’s Super Bowl in Santa Clara, California, which was in effect for ten hours.
Indiana law so far hasn’t caught up with drone technology. As with many other jurisdictions, the state has adopted a wait-and-see attitude and is watching cases in other places. One case of interest, for example, in federal court in Kentucky, found a property owner to be within his rights when he shot down a drone that flew over his land. That case, largely focused on trespassing and violation of privacy, is on appeal.
A patchwork of local regulations and varying interpretations of federal law have created more complications. General recommendations for safe flight tell operators not to exceed 400 feet, but Los Angeles restricts flights to an altitude of 200 feet. Tennessee has barred surveillance flights over private property as well as flying over gatherings of more than 100 people without first receiving permission.
The line between what constitutes private use and commercial use can also be hazy. Local experts recommend that drone operators consult with an attorney with aviation law experience before making any flight that could be construed as having a commercial purpose, including filming an event. It is often recommend that an operator seek what is known as a Section 333 exemption from the FAA, in order to steer clear of later trouble.
So far, there have been no court cases over injury caused by drones. But it may only be a matter of time before someone is seriously injured or extensive damage is caused by a crash. There have been numerous cases of bystanders being struck by drones that malfunctioned, lost power, or were poorly piloted. In 2015, a Seattle woman was knocked unconscious by a falling drone. During a parade in Marblehead, Massachusetts, two people were hit by a drone. A large drone, operated by a television station, went out of control and caused minor injuries to five people at a public event in Virginia. Even the operators themselves aren’t safe from their own devices: An inattentive drone operator apparently knocked himself out with his own craft.
Exactly how drones will be regulated in the future and how damage and injury incidents involving drones will be handled under the law remain to be seen. If you find yourself in need of legal advice in a drone-related matter, contact the Indianapolis Aviation Accident Attorneys of Wilson Kehoe Winingham. Call 317.920.6400 or fill out an online contact form for a free, no-obligation case evaluation.
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