Wireless Technologies

The Rise and Rise of 'Illegal' Drones

For years there have been discussions about using drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), for commercial purposes, namely delivery. But it wasn’t until late last year that this became a significant step closer to reality when Amazon unveiled Amazon Prime Air, the eCommerce giant’s delivery drone.

It’s possible that Amazon jumped the gun when it first unveiled its drone, as the regulatory framework simply wasn’t in place to allow the Amazon Prime Air to take off anytime. However, if anything, it kick-started a conversation and with that, legal wrangling with the FAA.

Regardless of the current framework, the drone business is showing zero signs of slowing down as the industry becomes more valuable and the topic of conversation becomes more mainstream. “The unmanned aircraft systems industry will be worth an estimated $80 billion to $90 billion over the next 10 years,” says Mark Dombroff, a former Department of Justice attorney on aviation and currently the head of the unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) Practice Group at the McKenna Long & Aldridge law firm.

“The FAA is behind the power curve and, due to the absence of regulations, industry is being held up. Otherwise, use of UASs [unmanned aircraft systems] on a widespread basis would start tomorrow,” he explains.

With this growing conversation and demand, the Federal Aviation Authority now finds itself at the end of more and more questions and growing pressure to shake up aviation regulation when it comes to unmanned aerial vehicles. A Congress mandate (under the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012) had previously required the FAA to complete drone testing for commercial and non-military use by September 2015.

It remains unclear if the FAA will meet its deadline but the pressure is on now. In the meantime, there will be some drone activities in the skies but nothing on a substantial scale. “For at least the next two years, plus or minus, small UAS operations will be conducted pursuant to exemptions granted by the FAA to the Federal Aviation Regulations,” Dombroff tells us.

Some are more optimistic than others but as drone expert and director at Remote Control Aerial Platform Association (RCAPA) Patrick Egan explains: “If we’re keeping at the same pace, I’d say another good 10 years,” before meaningful regulation that allows a widespread use comes into force. Nevertheless, as more big players enter the field, the pressure on the FAA to adjust regulations will grow.

In late August, Google revealed Project Wing to the world, its delivery drone project carried out by the usually-secretive Google X labs. Conducted on a remote farm in Queensland, Australia, the project has been ongoing for about two years, meaning Amazon hasn’t been the only tech giant dipping its toes.

Google will likely add to the growing pressure on the FAA to fully legalise these kinds of drones with the lobbying money Google can put behind the cause. Google spent $16 million on lobbying in Washington in 2013 and over $18 million in 2012. This is even bigger money and influence now taking sides with the drone industry.

Project Wing has been carried out in Australia due to the country’s “progressive” stance on drones, in other words, not the same barriers posed to Google by the FAA if it carried these tests out in the States.

While Google says Project Wing is tasked at delivering aid to areas that have been hit by disasters like earthquakes, the end game for a company like Google is to make money, which will mean diversifying into commercial practices for its aircraft.

“People trust tech companies with data and privacy, it’s kind of a false trust, but they do anyway,” says Patrick on how tech giants can shine a mainstream light on drones.

This is a point that many drone advocates and enthusiasts are quick to reiterate. There’s a big difference, in function and scale, between drones that are intended for use commercially and drones already used militarily. “[NASA] has a program called UAS in the NAS [national airspace] and most of the money is spent on the large DOD systems,” explains Patrick and this includes large scale military aircraft like global hawks, which are obviously significantly more expensive.

“Real estate agents are going to buy aerial photos from global hawks? No way,” says Patrick. “The DOD guys have spent enormous amounts of money trying to get regulation that are favourable to their existing systems.

“What the FAA is trying to do, is trying to regulate 10 year old technology. Amazon, Google, Airware, those guys are not thinking about spotting the Taliban or an asymmetrical warfare overlay. They’re thinking about uses that are going to make money because they’re business people.”

To add to the growing demand for drones to make money, Disney filed two patents for drone use in theme parks in August, which include light shows and parades, showing how despite the regulatory to and fro, the interested parties aren’t wasting any time in laying out their plans for the future.

Amongst the many concerns raised by the FAA and other bodies, one of those concerns relates to safety in operating the aircraft and potential injury to people.

“There will undoubtedly be some instances where a drone causes injury,” says C. Andrew Keisner, an attorney at Davis & Gilbert LLP and drone expert. “But the same is true for cars.  Just like there are general rules for how to operate a car and there can be consequences for operating a car negligently, the same will likely be true for drones.”

If a drone pilot is operating an aircraft, there will be greater consequences in operating the drone if there is high likelihood of injury in that area. Lawsuits against drone operators for negligent flying that causes damage or injury to persons or property are a possibility, says Mark Dombroff.

Keisner also adds that launching drones will likely be different from state to state with individual states moving forward with their own legislation to restrict the aircraft. “Aviation has traditionally been something regulated on a national level, but with states enacting their own restrictions on the use of drones, companies using drones will need to analyse the legal issues before operating in a new state,” he explains.

Nevertheless the discussion moves forward regardless of the several different hurdles that have been thrown up.

“Unmanned aircraft are the future of technology, the future of aviation,” says Patrick. The coming months and years will be a time of great change for this technology in the US as moods and attitudes towards drones change and with that, legal and regulatory conversations change too.


Jonathan Keane is a freelance journalist, living in Ireland, covering business and technology


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Jonathan Keane

Jonathan Keane is a freelance journalist, living in Ireland, covering business and technology

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