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Drones: What are They and What Can They Be Used For?

03.11.15 written by

A drone, which is technically referred to as an unmanned aerial vehicle (“UAV”), is an aircraft without a human pilot aboard.  The flight of the drone is controlled either by an onboard computer system or by remote control operated by an individual on the ground.  The size of a drone can range from the size of an insect to a much larger aircraft.

Originally, drones were used solely for military purposes.  The use of a drone for military purposes dates back to the 19th century when used in Europe.  As a result of losing pilots over hostiles territories, the first use of a drone by the United States dates back to 1959.  Currently, the United States military and the CIA have UAV programs.  As of 2013, it is believed that dozens of countries around the world have these types of programs.  Recently, a substantial increase has occurred in the usage of drones for either recreational activities or commercial activities.

In some countries, drones are used for various businesses such as filmmaking, sporting events, oil and gas exploration, and other commercial activities.  However, in the United States, drones are currently not permitted to be used for commercial purposes without authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”).  In fact, anyone who wants to fly an aircraft that is either manned or unmanned in the United States airspace needs some level of authorization from the FAA.  Today there are three ways of getting this authorization to fly a UAV:  (1) civil users can get an Experimental Airworthiness Certificate to do research and development, training, and flight demonstrations; (2) public entities may apply for a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization which, when approved, provides authorization for UAV operations in the national airspace; and (3) flying model aircraft solely for hobby or recreational reasons does not require FAA approval, but hobbyists must operate according to various rules and regulations. 

Thus, the use of a drone for commercial activities is not an automatic right.  In fact, the FAA recognizes that people and companies might be flying drones with the mistaken belief that they are legally operating.  If an individual or business does not comply with the various FAA requirements, a resulting violation may occur.  This violation may result in fines of ten thousand dollars or more. 

In one such case in Virginia, the FAA fined an individual over the use of a drone illegally for commercial purposes.  The individual filed an administrative appeal and won because the administrative judge ruled that the FAA has the authority to regulate the use of drones, but since the FAA had not formally issued its regulations, the individual won after spending thousands of dollars.  As a result, the FAA will soon be issuing regulations on this matter.  Individuals and businesses may want to wait to see what these regulations are before jumping into the use of a drone for commercial activity. 

More recently, the FAA approved BP’s use of drones in Alaska to take pictures and conduct missions in order to review their various pipelines in very remote areas.  This authorization by the FAA is one of the first authorizations issued to allow the use of a drone in a commercial activity.

If you are interested in using a drone for either an individual or a commercial activity, please make sure that you understand all the rules and regulations established by the FAA before undertaking such use of a drone. 

NOTE: This general summary of the law should not be used to solve individual problems since slight changes in the fact situation may require a material variance in the applicable legal advice.

James F. Contini II, Esq.
Certified Specialist in Estate Planning,
Trust & Probate Law by the OSBA
Krugliak, Wilkins, Griffiths & Dougherty Co., LPA
158 North Broadway
New Philadelphia, Ohio 44663
Phone:  330-364-3472
Fax:  330-602-3187