The ABA Presents: Air & Space Catalog

Drones Across America, Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Regulation and State Laws

The popularity of drones (Unmanned Aircraft Systems – UAS) and drone technology is the United States has excited entrepreneurs and corporations, while sending lawmakers scrambling to keep pace with the industry’s growth.  This comprehensive book lays out a framework for demystifying the sometimes unwieldy and ever-changing changing area of federal and state drone laws.


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Steer Clear from Military Bases if You Want to Keep Your Drone (and Yourself) Out of Trouble

There has been a growing security concern posed by drones, especially in light of increased use by both private citizens and companies. With the aim of keeping personnel and equipment safe in connection with its domestic military bases, the Pentagon recently issued classified rules that provide guidance to the U.S. military on how to deal with private and commercial drones that are found flying over or around its domestic military bases.

During the drafting process of the rules, the Pentagon consulted with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to determine how best to deal with drones. Although the specifics of the rules are classified, the rules generally allow for a variety of different responses to drones including tracking, disabling, and destroying the drones. The response may depend on the circumstances as well as the installation the drone is spotted near (i.e. the drones may even be seized afterwards for use in subsequent investigations). Further, the military already has several options in place such as using traditional ammunition to disable or destroy the drones as well as relying on radio waves to commandeer the drones from their operators.

However, the drones may not be the only things targeted if found operating near military bases. Back in April of this year, the Pentagon and the FAA announced a rule that prohibited drone flights near various domestic military bases. Although the previous rule regarding drones did not indicate that the drones would be specifically targeted by the military, it did state that pilots caught violating the restriction would be subject to arrest. The Pentagon has indicated that it will support civilian law enforcement investigations and the prosecution of unauthorized drone operations over military installations. Violators could potentially face fines or jail time.

For reference, a map can be found on the FAA website that provides information for the general public regarding areas and altitudes where drones can be operated safely. The map also highlights the various restricted airspace in connection with the domestic military bases.

This post was written by Thomas Nguyen of Polsinelli LLP in California © Polsinelli PC

For more legal analysis go to The National Law Review

Soaring to New Heights With Drones: The Rise of UAVs in Construction Projects

The next time you visit a construction site, look up. You may see a drone in flight. The explosion of interest in the unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) industry is driven by their potential for data collection because of the ability to carry many different onboard sensors. In the construction industry, drones are used for inspections, security and surveillance, material delivery, securing investment, augmented reality, and to identify safety issues.

Drones can also be used to improve day-to-day operations by creating time lapses, job-site monitoring, and thermal imaging. Other examples of ways drones can be used in the construction industry include: design, engineering, planning, marketing, volumetrics, asbuilts, construction progress, and site logistics.

Prior to August 2016, there were many legal prohibitions that limited the use of commercial drones. However, 14 CFR § 107 (Part 107) revolutionized the operation of UAS weighing less than 55 pounds and operating for commercial purposes. This regulation affords commercial operators with the opportunity to fly UAS without prior case-by-case approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), as long as they comply with certain restrictions. Some of the key operating restrictions include maintaining a visual-line-of-sight, operating only during the daytime or twilight hours, not flying over people not directly participating in the drone mission, and maximum speed and altitude limits. Transport Canada, which is responsible for transportation policies and programs in that country, has also recommended similar guidelines, including keeping the drone in visual line of sight and operating the drone during daylight hours. Additionally, there are extensive requirements for commercial operations under Special Flight Operating Certificate (SFOC), but Transport Canada is in the process of revisiting these rules.

Most of the restrictions under Part 107 are waivable, if granted permission from the FAA through an online application process. The Part 107 waiver process incorporates significant flexibility into the regulations. The waiver process is a tool that the construction industry can utilize to maximize the value and use of UAS. Possible areas to request a waiver include nighttime operations, simultaneous operation of multiple aircraft, operation over people, and operation in restricted airspace.

Use of UAVs in the United States is subject to the enforcement authority of the FAA. The FAA has broad enforcement authority and investigatory powers, which require it to regulate aircraft operations in the National Airspace System (NAS) in order to ensure the safety of persons, property, and manned aircraft. The FAA may take enforcement action against anyone who conducts an unauthorized UAS operation or operates a UAS in a way that endangers the safety of the NAS. The FAA works with local and state law enforcement to explain the legal framework surrounding UAS and to seek help in identifying unlawful UAS operators. Specifically, UAS must comply with safety requirements of Part 107. In addition, those who “endanger the safety of the national airspace system” may face penalties, including warning notices, letters of correction, and civil penalties. With regard to the FAA’s investigatory power, it needs only a “reasonable ground” to show a violation of a statute or regulation to initiate an investigation.

Transport Canada overall has conducted minimal enforcement of drone operations. In 2016, it undertook a large educational effort with regard to the safe operation of drones. It does have an online enforcement tool that provides information about “dos and don’ts” for flying drones, as well as details about regulations.

The increased prevalence of UAVs has prompted the courts to review the unsettled area of airspace law. One issue is the private versus public control of airspace. On one hand is the common law principle of property ownership that states that one controls the airspace above their privately owned land. On the other hand are FAA regulations, which claim jurisdiction over all U.S. airspace. Additionally, increased state legislation aimed at drone regulation has created preemption concerns, particularly when the state laws are in conflict with federal laws.

Another risk is that liability arising from drones is not covered in typical commercial liability insurance policies. However, it can be added to both property and liability coverage, which generally protects the insured against damage done by or to its drone. Some regulators propose requiring certain drone users to purchase liability insurance.

In order to keep up with the growth and changing needs of drone use, rulemaking for drone usage will likely continue and expand over the coming months.

Read more legal analysis here.

This post was written by Kenneth D. Suzan of  Barnes & Thornburg LLP.

FAA Rules for Drones: The Waiting is the Hardest Part

drone operations

The May edition of “Unmanned Systems” magazine printed interviews with Earl Lawrence and Marke Gibson, two administrators at the Federal Aviation Administration who are focused on drone integration.  While the FAA currently authorizes commercial drone operations on a case-by-case basis, it is anticipated that a new rule will be finalized this year and will be comprehensive enough to fulfill the public desire for commercial drone operations.

Lawrence predicted that performance-based standards, rather than weight and speed classifications, may be used in the new rule because they provide a more effective response to safety risks posed by drones. Lawrence also believed the new drone rule will require a certification for commercial drone operators.

Gibson noted that testing has revealed drone pilots are able to see other aircraft approaching at a distance of two and one half miles in daylight hours, more than the one mile estimated for operations within visual line-of-sight.  Gibson found this, and other testing data, valuable as the FAA continues its rulemaking for drones.

At least until the new rule is passed, however, commercial operators must still follow the Section 333 exemption process.  Those that wish to operate drones for business purposes must convince the FAA to issue an exemption.  The FAA requires information like the intended use of the drone; its design and operational characteristics; and how its operation will be done safely.

Neither Lawrence nor Gibson told the magazine when the new rule would actually be rolled out by the FAA.  Last Friday at a drone seminar though, Gibson hinted that the new rule may be announced this summer.  Hopefully, the waiting, not the rule itself, is the hardest part.

ARTICLE BY Jeffrey K. Phillips
© Steptoe & Johnson PLLC. All Rights Reserved.

Night Moves: FAA Makes Front Page News With Drone Exemption

On April 18, 2016, the FAA approved, for the first time ever, nighttime operation of a small unmanned aircraft system (UAS or “drone”) when used for commercial activity.  The FAA permitted Industrial Skyworks, Inc. to use drones to inspect buildings at night.

In order to get the exemption, the FAA required the following of Industrial Skyworks:

  • The pilot in command had to possess a commercial or private pilot certification that allowed night operations;

  • The pilot needed a medical certificate per 14 C.F.R. part 67; and

  • The drone had to remain in the pilot’s and visual observer’s line of sight at all times.

Industrial Skyworks bolstered its case by taking these steps to ensure the drone’s safe operation at night.

  • It would be launched from an illuminated landing and take-off area and equipped to continually alert the pilot of its location and altitude.

  • It possessed anti-collision lights visible from 5,000 feet.

  • The site of the preprogrammed flight was limited in size, and the area was restricted to authorized personnel.

  • The pilots completed a training program that included nighttime operating skills and experience.

  • The company created a comprehensive security plan, including a provision that the pilot in command and visual observer would arrive at the work site 30 minutes prior to flight to ensure their eyes adjusted to the darkness.

© Steptoe & Johnson PLLC. All Rights Reserved.

New Rulemaking Committee Could Expand Drone Uses for Utilities and Other Industries

On February 24, 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration announced the establishment of a new Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) to develop performance-based recommended standards and requirements for the operation of micro unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in the National Airspace System.  As previously defined in the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for the Operation and Certification of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems, a micro UAS is an unmanned aircraft that weighs no more than 4.4 pounds (2 kg) and is constructed of frangible materials “that break, distort, or yield on impact so as to present a minimal hazard to any person or object.”  The micro UAS ARC is to include members representing a diverse set of aviation stakeholders with emphasis on individuals with knowledge of small UAS design, manufacturing, and operations, data collection, safety, sensors, and testing.  The micro UAS ARC is to develop and submit its recommendations to the FAA by April 1, 2016, which recommendations will then be considered in the possible development of a future NPRM focused on micro UAS classification and operations.

New Rulemaking Committee Could Expand Drone Uses for Utilities and Other IndustriesWhy is the development of interest to utilities?  First, the defining characteristics of micro UAS could include many inexpensive but capable small drones presently available on the retail market.  This could enable utilities to more readily deploy UAS technology and begin gaining experience with it in a variety of applications.  Second, one of the key issues the ARC will focus on is the development of standards and operating parameters that could allow micro UAS to be operated over people who are not directly involved in the UAS operation.  Most utilities currently operating small UAS do so pursuant to Section 333 Exemptions that require operations be conducted at least 500 feet from all nonparticipating persons, vessels, vehicles, and structures unless certain precautions are taken.  This restriction can limit utilities’ ability to operate small UAS in some areas, such as over residential neighborhoods for post-storm damage assessments or for routine inspections of utility infrastructure located in densely developed areas.  A utility will still need to confine its UAS operations to above private or controlled access property where it has permission from the property owner, another typical Section 333 Exemption requirement; however, the ARC’s recommendations could allow utilities to deploy micro UAS along transmission and distribution line easements and fly within 500 feet of persons not involved in the operation.

These potential improvements resulting from the work of the micro UAS ARC do not address the operation of larger UAS that would be required for long distance utility applications, or the current restriction prohibiting beyond visual line of sight operations.  Furthermore, the initial list of invited members of the micro UAS ARC does not include any representatives from the utility or energy sectors, but does include other small UAS users such as Google and various agriculture, real estate, and news media interests which could also benefit from these changes.  Nevertheless, while the interests of the utility and energy sectors are not directly represented on the ARC, there is reason for optimism that the micro UAS ARC’s recommendations and potential future rule changes will open the door for an expanded number of beneficial, short range drones uses by utility and energy companies.

©2016 All Rights Reserved. Lewis Roca Rothgerber LLP

Amazon to Control Delivery by Drone?

People are talking about and news organizations are covering Amazon’s announced plans to deliver goods by drone in the not-too-distant future.  However, fewer are talking about or covering Amazon’s effort to be the only company that can autonomously deliver goods by drone.  On March 25, 2014, Amazon filed a United States patent application directed to aspects of a drone delivery system.  Pursuant to current patent law, the application was published on October 1, 2015, roughly 18 months after the application was filed.  While the application is still pending and not yet an issued patent, it provides an interesting look at the scope of protection Amazon is seeking for its drone delivery system.

Under current proposed FAA regulations, drones cannot be flown outside of the line of sight of the operator.  A much greater range will be needed for an effective drone delivery network.  Amazon is proposing to send its drones as far as 15 miles from a regional fulfillment center.  The drones would take off vertically from a warehouse floor, fly at low altitude over a suburban landscape and then descend into the backyards of their destination points.  There they would lay the package on the lawn before lifting off to return to the warehouse for another run.  The success of such a system will depend upon receiving FAA approval.  FAA approval of such a system is likely to be contingent upon demonstrating that the system can be operated without causing a hazard.  In other words, the drones will need to be equipped  with “sense and avoid” technology that prevents them from crashing into things.

Amazon’s pending patent application, Pub. No. US 2015/0277440 A1, contains claims that are broadly directed to a propeller driven automated mobile vehicle having a laser based rangefinder configured to determine a distance to an object, to a distance determining system for an automated mobile vehicle having a distance determining element positioned to emit a laser signal that reflects off a reflective exterior surface of a motor, and to an automated mobile vehicle having a plurality of motors where the alignment axis of at least two of the motors are not parallel and each motor has a distance determining element.  These claims have not yet been examined by the Patent Office.  Upon examination, the scope of the claims will likely have to be narrowed to distinguish them from prior art.  However, it seems clear that Amazon is interested in pursuing broad protection for “drones” having a distance determining element, which is likely to be a necessary component of any “sense and avoid” technology.  Thus, the potential exists that Amazon will obtain patent protection broadly covering drone delivery systems.

The way the Amazon patent application is written, it seeks to avoid the need for human involvement to ensure that vehicles do not collide with other drones, manned aircraft, or other objects or structures on the ground.  It also discusses a system for automatically sensing and avoiding objects.  Thus, the “automated mobile vehicles” of the application and recited in the claims appear to be directed to autonomous drones.  However, at this stage it is not yet clear whether the claims in any patent that issues will be limited to autonomous drones, but might also cover remotely-piloted drones.  It remains to be seen whether the examination process will push Amazon into limiting the claims to autonomous operation.

The Amazon patent application also discusses the distance determining elements being used to detect the presence of objects and to then cause the automated mobile vehicle to alter its path to avoid the object.  Thus, the distance determining elements seem to be used not only for unloading positioning, but also for sense and avoid in flight.  While in a remotely piloted context, a sense and avoid system may not need to actually determine distances to other objects.  The remote pilot could rely on visual displays of the surrounding environment of the drone to avoid collisions.  However, in an autonomous operation, it is difficult to envision any sense and avoid system that would not need to know at least the distance from the drone to surrounding objects to function.  Amazon appears to be using this need to know such distances in the autonomous context to preempt the field.  In other words, a patent covering any autonomous drone that determines distance to surrounding objects might preclude any other drones from being able to have a functioning sense and avoid capability.

The broadest claims in the Amazon patent application just recite a “distance determining element.”  In a narrower claim, the application specifies “the distance determining element is at least one of an ultrasonic ranging module, a laser rangefinder, a radar distance measurement module, stadiametric based rangefinder, a parallax based rangefinder, a coincidence based rangefinder, a Lidar based rangefinder, Sonar based rangefinder, or a time-of-flight based rangefinder.”  Thus, at this stage, Amazon is trying to cover all of the named techniques, any combination of those techniques, as well as anything else that could broadly be considered a distance determining element.

As noted, the Amazon patent application is still just pending and has yet to be examined.  Amazon may have other patent applications pending that have not yet been published, and therefore are not yet open to review by the public.  FAA regulations are also still developing.  Thus, much remains to be determined even as it relates to Amazon itself.  Other entities may also be working on drone delivery systems and/or have pending patent applications that have not yet been published.  Domino’s Pizza is said to have tested delivering pizzas by drone.  Skype’s co-founders have set up Starship Technologies to develop a ground-based drone that would be able to deliver groceries to customer’s homes.  It will be very interesting to see how the intellectual property protection for drone delivery systems plays out.

©2015 All Rights Reserved. Lewis Roca Rothgerber LLP