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Licensing of commercial drones has been limited so far, but it won't be long before usage starts expanding. In them meantime, CXOs need to assess and plan for possible legal ramifications.
Last week, news came out that Amazon has obtained a patent for a "Pony Express" style air delivery process for using unmanned delivery drones that would perch on light poles, carrying packages bound for various geographical regions. The news comes at a time when companies interested in using commercial unmanned vehicles like drones are still grappling with how legal issues will be decided—whether it is airspace permissions, safety, or even the rudiments of what you do if the person your drone is delivering a package to isn't home.
To date, commercial drones in the US have been licensed for just a thin band of commercial applications, such as mining or crop management in agriculture. These activities occur in thinly populated areas, so the legal issues that could arise where population is densely concentrated have not really surfaced.
Nevertheless, for CEOs who have commercial drone use on their strategic roadmaps, it isn't too early to begin considering the legal issues that are likely to surface with expanded drone use.
Here are several key legal issues that are in play.
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The law presently holds that residential airspace is trespassed when unauthorized flying vehicles fly under 400 feet above a property. Drones have to fly beneath 400 feet if they are to land on a customer's doorstep to deliver a package. The customer might consent to the delivery, but what about the customer's neighbor, who could view a low-flying drone as a property intruder that is violating airspace standards?
Five years ago, the Stanford Law Review said, "The development of American privacy law has been slow and uneven; the advancement of information technology has not."
Nothing has changed about this in 2016. The law continues to lag technology. If the present legal restrictions of airspace travel under 400 feet above private property remain, what will prevent a person who has not consented to a drone delivery from challenging the legality of a low-flying drone because it is violating their privacy rights?
Last year, a young boy in the UK lost an eye when a drone flew out of control and collided with him. There are still problems with drone control. Insurers are likely thinking about this in terms of your legal liability and your insurance premiums. You should be, too, as it is likely to affect your insurance costs as well as your liability exposure.
SEE: Drone policy
The law says that a person has a case for private nuisance when their right to quiet enjoyment of their property is violated by an intentional or reckless act of another. Public nuisance reparations are available when events adversely affect the health, well-being, and comfort of the public. There are cases on the books dating as far back as the 1970s that held that individual property owners were entitled to inverse condemnation damages because of airport noise that negatively affected the value of their homes. In cases like these, violators can be ordered to pay homeowners the fair value of their homes before the noise adversely affected property values. The issue could apply to drones as well.
Legal issues like these are a major reason why Congress and the Federal Aviation Administration have taken their time to consider the public impact of commercial drones before giving out licenses to those who would like to use them for expanded commercial purposes in heavy populated areas. Congress has the authority to determine that the public good for using drones commercially in urban areas outweighs privacy concerns, so it can set federal policy. However, to do this, it has to balance the desires of commercial drone operators with those of individuals who have the right to privacy and quiet enjoyment of their properties.
At some point, these policies are likely to be articulated and implemented. In the meantime, CEOs of companies considering commercial drones should take the opportunity to educate their boards on both the legal and the technical aspects of drones so that everyone has a 360-degree understanding of the issues.
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