Virtually overnight, drone law has emerged as a new practice area, and I am increasingly engaged by individual entrepreneurs and businesses with a vast range of legal issues concerning drones. Legal questions surrounding licensing, liability, insurance and privacy are intertwined in this increasingly cheap and rapidly accessible technology. Many of the legal issues for businesses and their counsel to consider are industry specific, and the Federal Aviation Administration is moving, albeit slowly, to provide guidelines for those interested in drone use for commercial activity. However, one aspect of drone law that has not yet emerged at all and which will apply to all operators, regardless of their industry or business uses, is criminal regulation. That may soon change.
In early October, the United States Senate introduced a bill which would make it a misdemeanor for individuals to operate a drone within two miles of a fire, airport or other restricted space; in August, the House introduced a similar bill. The Safe Drone Act, introduced by Senator Barbara Boxer, is one of several moves that have recently been introduced behind a crescendo of complaints and concerns raised about risks from the reckless use of drones by unlicensed operators. In particular, the proposed legislation arises out of concerns over collisions with manned aircraft.
Anecdotally, there has been an increasing number of firefighter operations forced to suspend air operations in the western states out of concern for pilot safety. In one widely publicized event, firefighting teams became concerned after an incident earlier this year in San Bernardino County, California, when drones that were being used to record video allegedly interfered with planes trying to drop retardant on a fire. The FAA has recently said that the number of drone sightings that have been reported by airline pilots has risen from 238 in all of 2014 to 650 in the first half of 2015.
Currently, FAA regulations prohibit operating drones within five miles of airports. The FAA has recently moved for civil penalties in excess of $1 million against a company the FAA claims knowingly conducted 65 unauthorized operations in controlled airspace. Other efforts by the agency have included working with organizations on technologies that would prevent drones from entering airspace of sensitive installations and create “geofencing.” Criminal legislation like that proposed by Congress serves as an additional deterrent.
As the skies grow more crowded and drone use more widespread, civil and criminal exposure will only increase. It is imperative for commercial and individual drone operators to be aware of the statutory and regulatory schemes that are quickly evolving.
Patrick Mincey is a trial lawyer in Wilmington, where he founded the Criminal Defense Group at Cranfill Sumner & Hartzog LLP. His criminal practice ranges from representing individuals and corporate clients who are targets, subjects or witnesses in federal and state white collar proceedings to “blue collar” defendants charged with murder, drug conspiracies and assaults. To contact Patrick Mincey, call (910) 777-6017 or email him at [email protected].
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