Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are more than just the latest must-have gadget; more and more companies are testing the small aircraft to improve their efficiency and product offerings. But as they gain in popularity, questions are swirling around the legalities of the airborne device, like who is responsible when one crashes, and where can they fly?
Any new technology is bound to encounter a few bumps as manufacturers respond to real-life scenarios. But, consumers shouldn't have to serve as manufacturers' guinea pigs while faulty drone technology causes injuries and property damage. Individuals who have been injured or who suffered other damages caused by a drone may be able to file a lawsuit against the operator or manufacturer.
How Are Drones Being Used?
By 2020, the FAA predicts there will be seven million drones flying over the U.S.
In 2016, there were 500,000 commercial drones and 1.5 million recreational drones. But, by 2020, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) predicts there will be seven million drones flying over the U.S.
The majority of the half a million U.S. commercial drones are being used for photography (29% of registrations) and real estate (18%). These go hand in hand as real estate agents typically use drones to take aerial photos of properties.
By 2020, the FAA expects that the majority of commercial drones will be used for industrial inspection (42 percent), about a quarter for real estate or aerial photography (22 percent), followed by agriculture (19 percent), insurance (15 percent), and government (2 percent).
Drones are also being used and tested for package delivery, recording sporting events, filmmaking, police and military surveillance of dangerous areas, and even wildlife conservation.
Who Can Fly Drones?
As the number of drones in the air spike, the regulations governing them are only loosening.
Prior to August 2016, drone operators were required to obtain an exemption from the FAA to fly drones for commercial purposes. Now, operators can simply obtain a remote pilot certificate which costs $150 and successfully passing a multiple-choice test.
Hobbyists do not need a license to operate their drones. If drones are less than 55 pounds and used strictly for recreational purposes, they don't have to be registered with the FAA either. Users must simply follow the FAA's safety guidelines, including not flying near airports, above 400 feet, or outside of the operator's line of sight.
Drone “Traffic Control” is Still in its Infancy
The FAA doesn’t expect to finalize its collision avoidance standards until 2019.
Google’s Alphabet X laboratory is currently working with the FAA and NASA to create an UAV air traffic management software that would allow drones to share their flight path information. The software uses the collected data to automatically reroute drones they suspect will collide, without drone operators having to intervene. Once it is launched, the FAA could also use the system to enforce no-fly zones.
The system is still in its infancy, having only been tested with six drones. The FAA doesn’t expect to finalize its collision avoidance standards until 2019, leaving the skies void of an organized drone traffic control system until then.
How Well Can Drones Avoid Collisions?
Drones are unmanned aircraft that can weigh anywhere from less than 5 kilograms to as much as two tonnes. A drone consists of two components: the unmanned flying aircraft (battery-powered and reliant on propellers for flight) and a remote control system.
Recreational drones used by the public can typically only fly for a few minutes because of the small battery size they support. Larger drones, like those used by the military, can fly for a few hours and often have enhanced features like infrared cameras, GPS systems, and lasers.
An important new feature of drones is obstacle detection and collision avoidance technology, similar to what self-driving cars rely on to avoid accidents.
Some forms of drone collision avoidance technology rely on LiDAR technology—the same technology used in self-driving cars. LiDAR uses laser beams and radar technology to detect objects and create detailed images of the drone’s surroundings. This technology, however, can often be too expensive and heavy for smaller drones to support.
The Phantom 4's front-facing cameras only detect collisions head on—not to the side of or behind the drone.
The DJI quadcopter Phantom 4 (the most popular commercial drone) is marketed for its obstacle collision avoidance technology, but drone enthusiasts have already demonstrated its flaws. The two front-facing cameras can only detect collisions head on—not to the sides or behind the drone. This means that common obstacles like walls or tree branches to the left or right side of a drone can still cause a collision.
The obstacle collision avoidance technology doesn’t work at all when flown in “sport mode”—the setting which allows the drone to fly forward up to 44 mph. A Gizmodo tech journalist crashed and destroyed his Phantom 4 when it flew in sport mode straight into a baseball cage.
Faulty obstacle detection technology aside, some drone users have had issues simply flying their drones, causing wayward drones to fly away from the user's line of sight, later ending up in power lines or other people's property.
Onagofly F115 Faces False Advertising Class Action
Consumers are fighting back against drones that fail to fly as advertised. A federal class action lawsuit was filed in March of this year against China-based Shenzen Sunshine Technology Development, California-based Acumen Robot Intelligence, and Sam Tsu of dba Onagofly.
Plaintiffs accused defendants of fraud and of deceptively advertising the Onagofly F115. In the complaint filed against Onagofly manufacturers, plaintiffs alleged that “the drone frequently flies away and crashes,” and that “there is also no ‘follow me’ option as promised, nor was there an obstacle-avoidance feature as promised.”
The companies raised $3.5 million through crowdfunding to manufacture the Onagofly F115—money that the plaintiffs claim they wouldn’t have paid if they knew what the resulting product would be like.
Drones Collide with White House Grounds, Space Needle
As manufacturers continue to improve drone obstacle detection and collision avoidance software, high-profile crashes are happening throughout the country. These collisions can not only cause property damage, but they also raise public safety and security questions.
A drone crashed into Seattle’s Space Needle on New Year’s Eve in 2016. The drone hit the roof while pyrotechnicians were prepping fireworks for that evening. No injuries or damage were reported, but law enforcement had to address public concerns over a possible attack.
Similar security threats were raised when a hobbyist accidentally crashed his drone onto White House grounds in January 2015. Secret Service didn’t detect the drone since the White House radar was built to detect larger aircraft like planes and missiles.
Most recently, in the summer of 2017, a drone collided with power lines in Mountain View, California, leaving 1,600 residents without power for two hours. Officials said the accident cost tens of thousands of dollars in damage.
Have People Been Injured by Drones?
Researchers at RMIT University confirmed that the majority of drone injuries are caused by technological flaws.
When drones collide with humans, injuries can be severe. Though inexperienced drone pilots often contribute to drone crashes, researchers have confirmed that the majority of drone injuries are caused by technological flaws.
RMIT University analyzed data from 152 drone collisions compiled by the FAA and Australian Transport Safety Bureau between 2006 and 2015. The most common cause of drone failure, they discovered, was a loss of communication between drones and their control systems.
Any crash can cause some degree of property damage or injury. But the larger the drone is, the more serious a collision can be.
Researchers at Virginia Tech are studying the effects of human-drone collisions. Using crash test dummies, they recorded the impact of a head-on drone collision. With average-sized smaller drones, they reported the risk of severe neck injury was less than 10%. But, for the largest drones, the risk rose to 70%.
Professional baseball player Trevor Bauer showed a stadium of baseball fans how serious drone injuries can be. He received 10 stitches to his pinky when one of his drone’s propellers unexpectedly started while he was working on it. The finger split open during the first inning of a 2016 playoffs game, forcing him to sit out.
In 2013, a triathlete in Australia required stitches when a drone filming aerial footage of the event collided with her. The photographer who owned the drone later claimed that someone stole the controls from him prior to the crash. Neither the operator nor the photography business were certified by the Australian government to operate drones.
Two years later, a drone capturing aerial footage of the Seattle Pride Parade crashed into a building and fell into the crowd. It injured two people, knocking one woman unconscious. The drone operator was found guilty of reckless endangerment and sentenced to 30 days in jail.
Have A Legal Question About Drones?
Our attorneys are following drone legislation closely and are investigating liability. If you were injured by a drone or suffered an invasion of privacy, you may be eligible for a lawsuit. Contact us today for a free, no-obligation legal review.