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Drone Law Opportunities Flying High

In early September 2017, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) (https://faa.gov) issued a statement saying that its small unmanned aircraft rule (https://faa.gov/uas/) in effect now for over a year, has prompted innovative drone applications across many industries. Since the rule went into effect, more than 80,000 drones have been registered with the FAA by businesses and governments. In addition, over 60,000 people applied for and obtained a Remote Pilot Certificate to operate a drone for commercial purposes. The FAA issued 127 authorizations for drone usage in search and rescue missions, in assessing the damage to critical infrastructure, and in providing media coverage on flooding. The agency specifically noted the use of drones in Hurricane Harvey recovery operations. The FAA estimates that up to 1.6 million small commercial drones will be in use by 2021.

Drone law is getting quite lively and becoming more robust. The FAA’s next round of drone rulemaking is anticipated in February 2018, when it expects to publish both a Final Rule on Registration and Marking Requirements for Small Unmanned Aircraft and a Proposed Rule on Operations of Small Unmanned Aircraft Over People. In addition, the agency is developing a rulemaking on Unmanned Aircraft Systems Expanded Operations in the National Airspace System, the date of publication undetermined at this writing.

And this is only the tip of the federal drone involvement iceberg. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) (https://dhs.gov), in partnership with Mississippi State University (http://msstate.edu/), began testing and evaluating drone capabilities in August 2017 to determine how drones could be leveraged to assist in DHS missions. Mississippi is in the forefront of promoting unmanned technologies and is home to a large and growing number of drone operators, manufacturers, and researchers.

The Department of Defense (DOD) (https://defense.gov) issued classified guidance in August 2017 to the armed  services and military installations on how to interact with communities located near bases about the growing number of commercial and recreational drones that could jeopardize base operations. The classified policy was developed in conjunction with the FAA. It details how military personnel may counter the unmanned aircraft threat.

August was also a busy month in Congress regarding drone operations. Identical Drone Operator Safety Act of 2017 bills were introduced into both the Senate (S. 1755) and House of Representatives (H.R. 3644). The legislation is designed to punish unsafe drone operations near passenger aircraft and airports. The bills would impose a fine up to $100,000 and/or imprisonment for up to one year on any person who knowingly or recklessly operates a drone that interferes with a passenger aircraft. If drone operations cause serious injury or death, the operator could be fined up to $250,000 and could be imprisoned for life. It would also be unlawful to operate a drone within an airport runway zone unless the operator has obtained prior authorization from the airport’s air traffic control tower or the operation is caused by a circumstance that the operator could not reasonably foresee or prevent.

The National Park Service (https://nps.gov) has begun issuing citations to recreational drone users who fly within Yellowstone National Park. The citations carry a penalty of between $350 and $1000 for the first offense. At this writing, Yellowstone has issued and filed four such citations in federal court.

Drone issues are beginning to appear in court as well. For example, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California is about to hear arguments in an intellectual property lawsuit filed against the Drone Racing League, Inc.

State legislatures are also becoming active with respect to drones. In California, a surveillance bill that passed the State Senate is pending in the State Assembly. S.B. 21 would require law enforcement agencies to create and make public surveillance plans and policies, including surveillance plans involving drones, facial recognition software, and social media monitoring, before officially adopting any of the plans. Under the bill, law enforcement agencies could not buy any new technology designed to collect information about people or groups without a public discussion.