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Liability from Above: Do Drone Laws Sufficiently Protect Us?

Drone regulations cartoon depicting why there is a need for them.

Most of us have become accustomed to seeing the occasional flying drone from time to time. Drones, also known as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), have a ton of beneficial uses. These range from real estate imaging, pipeline diagnostics, to even emergency services. Despite these uses, however, a number of challenges remain – mainly of the legal variety. While worries over a lack of flying drone laws are not new, rising interest in drone regulations is occurring for other reasons. Several companies are beginning to launch delivery drone services, which makes key issues associated with drones more relevant. These issues include things like privacy protections, trespassing, noise control, and even drone-related injuries. With this in mind, there are new proposals that could change such laws significantly in the years to come. And how these changes play out could greatly affect the impact drones have in our lives.

drone regulations, Arthur Holland Michel quoted.
Drones are becoming mainstream. Safety and privacy are two of the main concerns that need to be addressed.

Key Issues Demanding Flying Drone Laws

When drones were a novelty, drone regulations were not much of a concern. But as businesses and individuals increasingly use these low-cost flying resources, this is changing. In fact, recent polls have shown that most people have concerns about privacy issues associated with drones. As these UAS devices come closer and closer to the airspace surrounding our homes, many are demanding better drone regulations. To date, privacy and ownership of the air space around private property have not been well addressed. But with rising numbers of drones soon to come, this will need to change.

Other than privacy and trespassing, there are other issues concerning drone regulations and the public. In addition, liability issues and noise pollution are also notable issues for which some are requesting stricter flying drone laws. For example, Wing (an Alphabet company) had to address noise issues among its delivery drones in Australia. From 50 feet away, the drones made noises comparable to a loud television set. And in terms of liability, it’s unclear whether drone operators, businesses using drones, or drone manufacturers are subject to accountability. To date, flying drone laws have not identified which entity carries the greatest risk.

Flying drone laws, Arthur Holland Michel quoted
Specific laws on drones have yet to be created.

Reasons for Rising Demand for Drone Regulations

The key issue that is making drone regulation a priority issue currently involves the advances that are occurring in the marketplace. Recently, Wing launched its drone delivery service in Australia, as well as in a small town in Virginia. Its drone deliveries involve a variety of products common for household use. Likewise, UPS recently attained permission from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to provide drone delivery services in college, corporate, and hospital campuses. And Amazon similarly is heavy in the field, having introduced its own new drone delivery system this past summer. In essence, the writing is on the wall with drone traffic on the rise and a need for greater drone regulations to be considered.

Part of the issue in terms of flying drone laws is the autonomy of the FAA to regulate airspace. State and local governments have not been able to even make policy changes to air space around individuals’ homes. Prior legislation awards this regulatory power to the FAA. But this is progressively being challenged. If these legal or judicial challenges award greater control to local governance, new flying drone laws will certainly emerge. But to date, all air space even immediately outside one’s home is considered fair game for drone travel. Past legislation has focused on the rights of aircraft to avoid interference while in the air. And thus, drone regulations addressing issues like privacy, trespassing, and noise do not exist.

Drone regulations, Ryan Wallace quoted
Citizens are concerned about their privacy and they have every reason to be until drone regulations are completely sorted out.

Newly Proposed Drone Regulations

Without existing flying drone laws to guide current drone use, new legislation is being proposed. Specifically, two U.S. Senators from Utah are introducing a bipartisan agenda of drone regulations at a federal level. The new bill states that the property owner owns any air space below 200 feet and is off-limits to drones. Likewise, the airspace between 200 and 400 feet would be accessible to civilian drones only. These begin to provide flying drone laws that might address key evolving issues if passed by the Senate.

While these drone regulations and proposals offer some better guidance, they are also pursuing another important goal. In essence, these drone regulations challenge the autonomy of the FAA to regulate all air space. State and local governments might, therefore, be able to introduce their own flying drone laws for air space closer to properties. Without question, there will be a challenge to these pursuits by the FAA and subject to legal and judicial debates. Thus, it remains unclear what the final outcome will be for most flying drone laws.

Keeping Up with Technological and Market Change

The major issue with drone regulations relates to the rapidity with which markets and technologies are evolving. The advances in drone usage and product deliveries are pushing for new resolutions to address public concerns. Notably, there’s a limit to the regulations that addressed these areas, and thus there’s a need for new flying drone laws. It will be interesting to see just how these legal and social issues evolve over the next few years. One thing is for certain, however. Drones are clearly going to play an increasing role in our lives. And new drone regulations will be essential in finding the right balance between these services and existing social preferences.

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