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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Similar to the growing U.S. interest in exploring civilian uses of unmanned aircraft systems (“UAS”), efforts are underway across the African continent to deploy UAS in innovative ways such as protecting wildlife, expanding internet connectivity to isolated communities, and delivering humanitarian aid. In Kenya, Dickens Olewe and his African SkyCAM project is helping journalists to revolutionize their news reporting and coverage.
The winner of the inaugural African News Innovation Challenge, African SkyCAM “establishes Africa’s first newsroom-based ‘eye in the sky’ drones and camera-equipped balloons to help media that cannot afford news helicopters cover breaking news in dangerous situations or difficult-to-reach locations.” It has the potential to address two of the main shortcomings faced by traditional news media in the region. First, journalists who lack financial and technological resources to conduct remote reporting often are “‘risking life and equipment’” to get their story. Second, by not resorting to state-owned UAS, journalists are able to maintain editorial independence in their reporting.
Use of UAS for journalism and other civilian purposes in the region is facing the same regulatory challenges which are delaying their widespread deployment in the U.S. Although the Kenyan government has not yet established a regulatory framework for civilian UAS, it has indefinitely grounded both the Flying Donkey Challenge (a high-profile, Swiss-funded competition to develop flying robots which are capable of carrying heavy cargo over long distances) and the Ol Pejeta Conservancy’s wildlife surveillance drone. Similarly, earlier this year, the South African Civil Aviation Authority announced a “clampdown” on civilian UAS, a warning that some observers believe has chilled this nascent industry. However, it is promising that the South African government has stated that it is “cognizant of the urgent need and demand for UAS usage” and that it will be releasing an interim guidance document by March 31st of next year. In addition, South Africa and other countries in the International Civil Aviation Organisation Unmanned Aircraft Systems Study Group are continuing to work to develop a safe and harmonised regulatory framework.
In the meantime, African SkyCAM (which is looking to expand to Mozambique and Namibia) and others will need to pay careful attention to finding the proper balance between business, compliance, and innovation.
The potential for drones, i.e., unmanned aircraft systems (“UAS”), is tremendous. After years of being associated with military operations, the civilian UAS market is expected to dramatically expand in the United States in the next ten years. A multitude of conceivable applications for UAS — including mapping, weather forecasting, law enforcement, news gathering, real estate, photography, agriculture, and freight transport — promises to change the way business is done across a diverse array of industries and companies.
By any measure, the UAS market is significant and growing. Optimistic analysts project that annual U.S. civilian spending on UAS will grow from $1.15 billion in 2015 to $4 billion in 2020 and $5.11 billion in 2025. Less sanguine analysts place the annual worldwide civilian UAS market between $498 million and $1 billion by 2020. The FAA predicts that UAS will be the “most dynamic growth sector within aviation industry.”
However, many legal and regulatory obstacles remain before drones can be widely used in our national airspace. Current federal law prohibits UAS in most circumstances with exceptions for test flights and government aircraft that secure special permission from the FAA.
This will change because Congress delegated to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) the task of integrating UAS in to the National Airspace System by September 2015. Quite apart from the regulatory framework developed by the FAA, numerous legal issues will arise ranging from takings and property torts relating to flights over private property to privacy issues. State tort laws will be heavily involved.
Notwithstanding these legal and regulatory challenges to widespread UAS usage, there is great momentum and potential for this new form of aviation. Businesses should focus on how they can benefit from the use of drones. Once they have done so, they should navigate the legal and regulatory thicket. The rewards could be substantial.