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How to Navigate Laws for Drone Aircraft

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Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) — commonly known as drones — have proliferated so rapidly in recent years that government regulators have struggled to keep up, creating a confusing mix of federal and local regulations governing how they’re operated for recreational and commercial use.

“This technology is moving so fast it seems like something is changing — the laws or the technology — monthly,” says lawyer Jennifer Lee, who focuses on business and corporate law at Chehardy Sherman Williams in New Orleans and who has advised numerous companies that operate drones.

UAS have been employed for tasks including mapping, agriculture and disaster response, and the fast growth is expected to continue.

A 2013 study by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International estimated that the integration of UAS into the national airspace would have an overall economic impact of more than $13 billion from 2015 through 2017, and an economic impact of more than $82 billion between 2015 and 2025. The report forecast that drones would create more than 70,000 new jobs from 2015 through 2017. “It could change the economy,” Lee says.

Lee and Franz Borghardt, a Baton Rouge criminal defense attorney and LSU Law School instructor, offered their insights into the emerging legal issues surrounding drones during a recent Tech Park Academy workshop at the Louisiana Technology Park. Here are some of their suggestions for those interested in joining this growing area.

Obtain the Proper Permits

Drone technology has been on the market for years, but widespread business use is a relatively recent development. Commercial use of drones required a special waiver before Aug. 29, 2016, when regulations were eased. “The technology was here and people wanted to incorporate that technology into their business,” Lee says.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires commercial drone pilots to obtain what is commonly called a “107” — a permit that allows commercial operation of a UAS under certain conditions. The permit outlines rules designed to ensure the safe operation of drones by businesses.

The laws governing recreational drone use have also changed rapidly. In 2015, as the retail market for small drones was taking off, the FAA passed a regulation requiring every hobbyist to register their drone online if it was over 0.55 pounds — roughly the weight of two sticks of butter. About 300,000 drones were registered in the first month.

In May 2017 a court ruling prompted the repeal of the registration rule for all drones. That regulatory blank space lasted until December, when a provision in a military spending bill once again required drone hobbyists to register their aircraft. “That’s just another example of how rapidly everything changes,” Lee says.

Learn the Laws

Commercial drone pilots who obtain a “107” permit must follow certain rules. For starters, a UAS must weigh less than 55 pounds — larger aircraft require special permits — and it must stay within visual range at all times. Drones should not be flown above people not directly involved in the operation of the aircraft. “You can’t just fly your drone over a crowd of people and take a picture,” Lee says. “The reason that rule is in effect is to protect people.”

Drones are limited to 100 mph and 400 feet in altitude — although they can go higher if they remain within 400 feet of a structure — and cannot be operated in Class A airspace, which is 18,000 to 60,000 feet and is generally reserved for larger aircraft. Operators must also maintain a 5-mile buffer around airports and avoid careless or reckless usage.

To obtain the permit, drone operators must be 16 or older, pass a written test and be vetted by the Transportation Safety Administration.

Limit Your Liability

Borghardt says there are risks associated with taking photos or video with drones, some of which could lead to criminal penalties. He says a general rule for avoiding criminal liability is to get permission from a property owner when taking footage of any land or structure — in writing if possible. “When in doubt, get permission,” he says. “It may cost you time, it may cost you money, but it may save you criminal liability.”

There also are privacy issues associated with operating a drone. For example, a drone pilot taking footage of someone in their Louisiana backyard without their permission will likely be subject to criminal penalties under a recently passed state law. “You are going to get charged with a felony,” Borghardt says.

Borghardt says commercial drone operators could be liable for property damage or injuries caused by their aircraft. With that in mind, he says to never allow someone without the proper certification to fly a drone, because owners would likely be liable for any accidents.

Lee and Borghardt both recommended that commercial operators strongly consider purchasing liability insurance for drone activities, such as the $2 million policies offered by the Academy of Model Aeronautics. And Borghardt urged commercial operators to have a legal expert vet all paperwork and permissions before beginning a drone project. “When in doubt, pay someone who knows,” he says. “It’s a lot cheaper on the front end.”

Tech Park Academy is the Louisiana Technology Park’s skill-based workshop series designed to provide entrepreneurs with the training and resources required to move their businesses forward and to address the critical business and organizational issues they face daily. The next event will take place in February.

Stephen Loy