Responses Vary to Injury Threats Posed by Hobbyist Drones

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Feb 11, 2016

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DroneDrones, those radio-controlled “quadcopters” that sometimes sport aerial surveillance cameras, have a variety of business and military applications, but they are also becoming the latest recreational fad for technology consumers. Drone sales have increased by 63% over last year, meaning 700,000 new drones will occupy American skies by the end of the year.

Classified by government agencies as “unmanned aerial vehicles” (UAVs), drones are a cause of concern for officials who fear their misuse by terrorists, drug smugglers, and window peepers.

Since almost any technology (including cars) can be used to commit a crime, it usually makes sense to focus on the crime rather than the technology. Drones present additional concerns to public safety, however, that might merit regulation. Fears of weaponized drones were exacerbated after a drone accidentally crashed on the White House lawn. That crash involved an operator who lost control of his drone, but a crash last year at the feet of German Chancellor Angela Merkel was a deliberate act of protest.

The Washington state legislature is considering a bill that would add one year to the potential sentence for any crime that is committed using a drone, while Gov. Brown just vetoed a California bill that would have made it illegal to fly a drone less than 350 feet above private property without the owner’s permission. The greater threat from drones may be from negligent operation rather than criminal misuse. Whether proposals to promote safe flying will get off the ground is unclear.

FAA Regulations

Hobbyists have flown radio-controlled model airplanes and helicopters for years. As long as they flew model aircraft that weighed less than 55 pounds, did not fly higher than 400 feet, and stayed 5 miles away from the any airport, a federal law enacted in 2012 exempted their hobby from government regulation. Approval by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was required to fly larger UAVs or to fly them for commercial purposes.

The FAA adopted voluntary guidelines in 1981 that encouraged hobbyists to maintain visual contact with their aircraft, to stay away from stadiums, and to follow other safe practices. Those guidelines were cancelled in September 2015. Recreational drone operators are concerned that the FAA intends to impose binding regulations, rather than voluntary guidelines, on drone operators.

An FAA interpretation of the 2012 law concluded that the FAA has the power to make and enforce regulations affecting recreational UAS operators to ensure that operators do not endanger the National Aerospace System. Whether that interpretation is correct, and if so, how broadly the FAA is authorized to regulate drone use by hobbyists, may eventually be decided by a federal court.

The FAA’s first step was to impose a registration requirement upon drone operators. The law draws no distinction between quadcopters and traditional radio-controlled airplanes. By February 2016, every UAS weighing more than a half pound will need to be registered and must display a registration number. According to the FAA, anyone who flies an unregistered drone may face civil or criminal penalties. The registration law is likely to face legal challenges on a number of grounds, including its potential conflict with the 2012 law that told the FAA to leave UAS hobbyists alone.

The FAA contends that registration is necessary to “send a message” about the need to operate drones safely and to hold unsafe operators accountable. That message is the FAA’s response to hundreds of complaints by pilots who reported that drones flew within 500 feet of their aircraft. Since pilots will probably be unable to read the small registration numbers on drones, however, the registration requirement may prove to be an ineffective method for holding drone operators accountable.

The FAA is considering additional safety regulations, including pilot certification that would apply to commercial drone operators. Those proposed regulations would not apply to hobbyists, but hobbyists would only be exempt if they do not endanger the safety of airspace. The FAA seems to be saying “our rules do not apply to hobbyists unless the hobbyists break them,” which courts might view as an impermissible way of regulating hobbyists. In the meantime, the FAA is encouraging local governments to regulate drones.

Safety Concerns

Whether hobbyist drones should be regulated by the FAA is a fair subject of debate. Unsafe operation can cause drones to crash, potentially injuring victims of careless flying. A news photographer was hit in the face by a drone that was flying inside of TGI Fridays. The drone’s rotor sliced the tip off of the photographer’s nose. A drone in England sliced the eyeball of a toddler, blinding him in one eye.

Most reported injuries from drone accidents have been minor, but as drones becomes increasingly popular, as well as bigger and faster, the threat of serious injuries will escalate. Drone operators may want to check their homeowner’s insurance policies to make certain that they are covered for injuries they may cause by losing control of their quadcopters.

(Photo Credit: “Gonna See Me Some Drones At Pinkpop” by Alfred Grupstra is licensed under Public Domain)

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