On Friday, a panel of lawyers and drone experts wrestled with some of these issues during the second day of the American Bar Association Annual Meeting in San Francisco.
“This is a multifaceted legal situation as well as a technical situation,” said Donna A. Dulo, who was trained in mathematics and the law and worked for the Department of Defense in military and civilian capacities.
For the United States, the concept of drones dates back to 1918. The first Predator drone, a popular military version, flew in Bosnia in 1995. Today, nearly one in three U.S. warplanes is a drone, up from 5 percent in 2005, primarily because of their expanded use in the war in Afghanistan and related military activities in that region.
Panelists focused on the growing debate on whether drones should be permitted to fly domestically for commercial purposes. Their commercial use is now banned; only hobbyists, law enforcement agencies and recognized experimental entities are allowed to fly them.
“There is commercial value in these images,” said Steve Morris, president of MLB Co., as he discussed construction, agriculture and other business-related uses. “A drone without a payload is basically a model aircraft.”
“The technology literally allows you to place eyeballs in the air,” said Morris, whose company, which was founded in 1987, makes small unmanned airplanes, mostly for foreign markets.
To Jennifer Lynch, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, those “surveillance possibilities” are a major concern. She works on open government, transparency and privacy issues for the San Francisco-based nonprofit.
“As the wars wraps up — as they will someday — that technology is coming back home,” Lynch said.
The panelists agreed that unless action is taken soon, the legal and technological questions about drone use will only magnify. Panel moderator Matthew Henshon, a partner at Henshon Klein LLP in Boston, noted that the Federal Aviation Administration has a September 2015 deadline to come up a blueprint for commercial use of drones. But it is widely thought that the deadline will be extended.
While the panelists said the FAA has the expertise to address drones from a safety perspective, they expressed concern that the federal agency would not be able to adequately tackle privacy and other issues.
“There is a lot of gray area in this unmanned technology field,” said Patrick Egan, an editor of sUAS News, a website produced by professionals in the small unmanned aircraft system industry.
Egan noted that engineers are those most involved in the field of unmanned aircraft. “There is a huge business potential,” he said, adding those companies will “need lots of lawyers.”
The ABA Section on Science and Technology Law sponsored the program, “Drones on the Horizon: Legal Issues with UAVs Flying in Domestic Airspace.”