Drones are often packaged as easy-to-use “toys,” and are even given to young children to play with. In 2016, 1.5 million Americans were gifted with drones during the holiday season.
But, drones are more complex and potentially dangerous than the average toy. Operating them isn’t always straightforward and it is easy to lose control of a drone. As a result, drones have collided with planes, major landmarks, power lines, and even humans. People who were injured, suffered property damage, or whose privacy was violated because of a drone are filing lawsuits against drone operators and manufacturers.
How Are Drones Regulated?
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) currently has authority over commercial and hobbyist drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Commercial drone operators are required to obtain a remote pilot certificate which costs $150 and successfully passing a multiple-choice test.
Under the 2014 FAA Special Rule for Model Aircraft, drones don’t have to be registered with the FAA if they are less than 55 pounds and used strictly for recreational purposes. However, there are federal laws that recreational drone operators still need to abide by, including not flying:
- Near airports: Operators must provide prior notice before flying within 5 miles of an airport.
- Near manned aircraft: Drones must always give way to manned aircraft.
- Over large crowds: Drones cannot fly within a three-mile radius of stadiums during (or one hour before or after) an MLB, NFL, or NCAA Division I football game, or a major motor speedway event.
- Over major landmarks: These include the White House, Statue of Liberty, Hoover Dam, and Mount Rushmore.
- Near emergency response efforts: For example, drones can interfere with helicopters responding to wildfires.
- Over 400 feet
- Outside the drone operator's line of sight
- In the dark: From 30 minutes after sunset to 30 minutes before sunrise.
FAA Sues SkyPan for Illegal Drone Footage
Just because there are strict FAA regulations for commercial drones, doesn’t mean everyone follows them. SkyPan used drones to take aerial photos over heavily populated areas, which they later published. The photos were captured between 2012 and 2014 when the government had yet to approve commercial use of drones.
The FAA hit SkyPan with a $200,000 fine. SkyPan also agreed to pay $150,000 if they violate FAA regulations next year, and an additional $150,000 if they violate the settlement terms. But, most interestingly, SkyPan agreed to help the FAA produce three public service announcements to "encourage drone operators to learn and comply with" drone laws.
Executive Order Relaxes Regulations for Commercial Drones
The Executive Order allows businesses to obtain waivers from drone restrictions, like prohibitions from flying over people, at night, and beyond the drone operator’s line of sight.
Though drone manufacturers have yet to perfect drone safety, the federal government is making it easier for companies to receive waivers from established drone regulations.
On October 25, 2017, the Trump administration issued an executive order that allows a greater number of commercial drones in the skies. The order permits the FAA and Transportation Department to grant businesses waivers from drone restrictions, like prohibitions from flying over people, at night, and beyond the drone operator’s line of sight.
The executive order also establishes the Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program, which will bring industry and state, local, and tribal authorities together to establish drone laws. The program will run experiments over the next three years prior to finalizing national laws.
One argument for weakening FAA regulations was that other countries were surpassing the U.S. in commercial drone use and advancement. Currently, Google is testing drone delivery in Australia, and Amazon in the U.K. Prohibitions from flying drones over people or outside of the operator's line of sight made drone delivery almost impossible in the U.S.
But, experts warn that weakening FAA regulations may create more chaos than innovation. Jim Gregory, who manages UAV integration within the existing airspace system, told Wired, "The implications of that unstructured environment make it more challenging to mix in UAS in a very dynamic and complex airspace."
The FAA oversees 40,000 U.S. flights a day—a much more congested airspace system than in other parts of the world—Gregory pointed out.
Do Drone Privacy Laws Exist?
Drones pose a major privacy threat since they can easily go undetected while capturing footage over people’s backyards, inside homes, or in public places where people don’t expect to have photos or video captured of them. Even though there have been complaints around the world of drones hovering over sunbathers on public beaches or in their backyards—in some cases, people have even retaliated by shooting said drones down—privacy laws protecting consumers from prying drones are still very much in their infancy.
Currently, only five states have passed some type of drone privacy law.
Consumer advocates have also raised the issue of retailers and insurance companies using drones to capture information that could be beneficial for advertising purposes, like where and when people shop.
Currently, only five states have passed some type of drone privacy law: CA, AK, FL, MI, and TX. California’s law states that drone operators (including those operated by the paparazzi) can be liable for privacy invasion when they attempt to capture “any type of visual image, sound recording, or other physical impression of the plaintiff engaging in a personal or familial activity under circumstances in which the plaintiff had a reasonable expectation of privacy...regardless of whether there is a physical trespass.”
Senator Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) introduced the Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act in March 2017 to ensure privacy protections for all Americans. The bill would require FAA to ask registered drone users if, how, and why they are collecting and recording data with their drones, including local police departments. The law would also require the FAA to create a publicly accessible website featuring the data collection statements for all registered drone users.
Federal Judge Dismisses Suit Against “Drone Slayer”
The right to privacy was contested in court in a suit brought by David Boggs. Mr. Boggs flew his drone over the backyard of William Merideth (dubbed “Drone Slayer”). Mr. Merideth, unsure of why the drone was hovering over his backyard and what kinds of data it was collecting, shot it down.
Mr. Merideth claimed the drone was aerial trespassing and was guilty of privacy invasion. US District Judge Thomas B. Russell dropped the suit, ultimately siding with Mr. Merideth.
Who Can Be Held Liable for a Drone Injury?
In the event of a drone collision, the drone operator and possibly the manufacturer may be held liable for an injury. According to data from drone collisions in the last decade, the majority of drone injuries have been caused by technology flaws, not operator error.
The most common technical failure, researchers at RMIT University identified, was a loss of communication between the drone and the controls. If a manufacturer designs a drone with technical flaws, they could be held liable for injuries and damages caused by a drone collision.
Who is Eligible for a Drone Lawsuit?
If you suffered from one of the following, you could be eligible for a lawsuit:
- Physical injury from a drone collision
- Invasion of privacy from an unauthorized drone
- Other physical, financial, or personal injuries
What Can a Lawsuit Recover?
A lawsuit may be able to recover compensation for the following damages:
- Past and future medical bills
- Lost earnings
- Pain and suffering
Were you Hit by a Drone?
If you suffered a drone-related injury or loss, you may be eligible for a lawsuit against the drone operator or manufacturer. Our attorneys aren’t strangers to complex litigation or standing up to large corporations. To date, they have recovered more than $5 billion for more than 200,000 clients. Contact us today for a free, no-obligation legal review.
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