The development of affordable personal drones over the past decade has brought the hobby of remote-controlled aircraft out of the battlefield and into the hands of hobbyists. However, the rapid rise in the popularity of these small aerial vehicles has not been accompanied by friendly skies. Drone accidents have caused serious personal injuries, and critics fear that far worse could come to pass in the near future as drones cross paths with more traditional aircraft.
Lawmakers across the US are scrambling to find ways to restrict and even ban drone use in response to concerns over the health, safety, and privacy of individuals.
The Federal Aviation Administration has spent years attempting to get a handle on the explosive proliferation of civilian drones.
On December 21st 2015, an FAA rule required Americans to register drones weighing more than 250 grams. The registry was challenged in 2017 by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in a ruling issued in Taylor v. Huerta. In the ruling the court explained that the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 states that the FAA, “may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft.” In essence, they could not enact any rule restricting the operation of non-commercial drones, as they are covered by the legal definition of model aircraft.
The ruling’s effects forced the FAA to begin refunding the registration fees for thousands of non-commercial operators, but Taylor’s victory was short lived. President Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act later in the year, effectively reinstating the FAA’s drone registry.
Drone manufacturers have supported regulations to prevent unsafe drone operation, but this hasn’t slowed reckless behavior.
Drone manufacturers were disappointed at the result of Taylor v. Huerta. Perhaps hoping to avert further legislative action, industry giant DJI, a manufacturer of aerial photography drones, stated that the FAA’s approach to drone regulation was “reasonable,” encouraging drone owners to be accountable for their flying.
It is not the first time DJI has stepped forward to accommodate law enforcement and the US government. In 2015, a DJI Phantom drone flew over the fence of the White House and landed on the front lawn. The defensive radar around the White House did not activate, as it was designed to detect larger incoming missiles and aircraft. In response, the manufacturer stated that all future drones would come prepared with geo-fencing technology to prevent them from navigating into prohibited airspace.
The ACLU and other advocacy groups have opposed legal restrictions of drone use, while also acknowledging the real dangers they present. Complicating matters is the fact that technological approaches to restricting unsafe use of drones can be circumvented. Geo-fencing restrictions can be bypassed, and drones can be upgraded to carry larger, potentially lethal payloads. Months after the incident at the White House, an 18-year-old Connecticut resident posted a YouTube video of a modified drone firing a mounted handgun.
Drones being improvised for criminal or terrorist activity have been a source of worry for lawmakers and regulators alike. And these fears have been realized in more volatile regions of the world. Modifications to control, stability, and weight capacity have allowed the use of off-the-shelf drones in terrorist attacks and even assassination attempts.
Drone injuries, accidents, and lawsuits against their operators are becoming more frequent.
As drones become more capable and common, the risks to bystanders have inevitably grown. Drone accidents have already made headlines across the US.
- In 2013, a small drone flying over Manhattan lost control after crashing into a building, crashing down onto the streets during rush hour and nearly hitting a businessman. The FAA claimed the drone should not have been flying over the city at the time and fined the operator $2,200.
- In 2015, a student at the University of Southern California sustained serious injuries while attending a fraternity party. A drone being used to photograph attendees crashed into the victim’s head, causing profuse bleeding. She was taken to the hospital but continued to suffer recurring headaches. Filed in 2016, her lawsuit against the fraternity and the drone operator was settled in 2018, with the defendants admitting no wrongdoing.
- In another 2015 incident, two people attending a Pride Parade in Seattle, Washington were injured when a $1200, 2-pound drone filming the parade lost control after crashing into a building, falling into a crowd. One victim was knocked unconscious and needed to be evacuated from the scene. The drone operator was fined $500 and sentenced to 30 days in jail.
- A California couple filed a lawsuit in August 2018 after a woman claimed serious injuries she suffered were caused by a drone falling out of the sky during a vacation in Las Vegas. Caesar’s Palace, the Great Lakes Drone Company, and the individual operator of the drone were all accused of negligence, and for failing to comply with federal rules prohibiting the use of drones after dark or over crowds of people. The victim stated that her injuries permanently affected her eyesight.
FAA studies suggest that drones pose a risk to civilian and commercial aircraft.
While drone injuries to individuals on the ground are serious and potentially life threatening, the FAA’s efforts to regulate drones have much larger concerns in mind—the potential for drones to damage to manned aircraft.
Computer models created by the FAA in 2017 show that drones could potentially cause more damage than birds of comparable size due to the metal parts in their construction. While there are bans on operating drones near airfields, and geo-fencing could prevent unmodified drones from violating controlled airspace, regulators and lawmakers fear that these measures will not be enough to prevent a major incident.
While such fears have not been realized, there have been near misses. In February, a helicopter was forced to make a crash landing in South Carolina after a drone appeared directly in front of the aircraft. The helicopter’s pilot-in-training had control taken away by their instructor to evade the drone, but in the process clipped a tree, forcing the aircraft down.
Last year, a Canadian charter plane with eight passengers was struck by a drone as it passed over Quebec City. The twin-turboprop aircraft landed safely with minimal damage to its left wing. Had the drone disabled an engine, the aircraft could have been in far more danger.
These incidents were relatively minor. But as more drone accidents are reported and result in lawsuits, and as more near misses rattle pilots and endanger traditional aircraft, it seems inevitable that state and federal governments will be forced to face the problem head on.
This blog is not meant to dispense legal advice and is not a comprehensive review of the facts, the law, this topic or cases related to the topic.