The Emerging Law on the Commercial Use of Drones

The body of law relating to drones, those small, unmanned, remote controlled aircraft - those flying gizmos - is in its infancy, but is growing rapidly. In February of this year, the Federal Aviation Administration announced a new set of rules which authorize the commercial use of drones, albeit in a very limited manner. What possible commercial use could there be, you ask? Architects and engineers are already using drones to take aerial videos of buildings and other structures. Same goes for real estate agents. Film production companies have been using aerial drone videography for several years now. Farmers are using it to monitor the growth of crops. Drones are used in the development of golf courses and large commercial construction projects. Major tech companies such as Amazon, Google and Apple are investing untold millions in the future of drone package delivery systems and other applications. When IBM developed the first computer in the 1950's, one top executive said, 'I think there is a world market for about five computers.' That proved to be an understatement. Drones will likely be as transformative of commerce and indeed, life in general, as computers, cellphones and the internet itself.

Before these new rules, the FAA took the position that the commercial use of drones was illegal.mIn 2011, the FAA took action against Raphael Pirker for filming an aerial video of the University of Virginia campus to be used by UVA for promotional purposes. The university paid Mr. Pirker $10,000.00 for his services, which made it a commercial transaction, as opposed to recreational video shot by a drone hobbyist. The legal issue was whether the FAA rules at the time extended to drones used for commercial purposes. Pirker prevailed before an administrative law judge, only to be reversed on appeal. But the door had been opened and the FAA knew the time had come to address the issue, which resulted in the new rules.

So, the FAA rules aside, what other legal issues are out there? Well, time will tell but here are a few that come to mind.

This list will no doubt grow along with the commercial use of drones. The FAA rules will likely be made less restrictive as drone use expands. Court opinion and Congress will also play a role in altering this area of law.

Keep your eye on the horizon--you may soon be seeing a drone.


Spotts Fain publications are provided as an educational service and are not meant to be and should not be construed as legal advice. Readers with particular needs on specific issues should retain the services of competent counsel.

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