In a previous post, we wrote about drones (which are more formally referred to as “unmanned aircraft systems” or UAS), as well as the nascent federal and state statutory and regulatory framework.

Since our last article, drone use – as predicted – has grown more prevalent throughout the U.S. commercial marketplace and especially the construction industry. Last year, an estimated 2.5 million drones were sold in the United States, and approximately 670,000 drones were registered with the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) during the same time period.

Because drones are considered aircraft under federal law, they are subject to FAA regulations. Most recently in 2016, the FAA promulgated expansive new regs that impose a number of restrictions on the operation and use of commercial drones, including, but not limited to, the following:

  • Prohibiting nighttime flying
  • Prohibiting flights faster than one hundred (100) miles per hour
  • Requiring drone operators to pass an aeronautical knowledge test (which involves proper drone operation and emergency procedures)
  • Requiring drone operators to obtain a remote pilot certification
  • Requiring all commercial drones to be registered with the FAA, and a nominal fee must be paid
  • Restricting airspace around certain areas

Regarding airspace restrictions, drone pilots must be careful to avoid flying in certain protected zones, such as the five mile radius surrounding most airports or within three miles of spectator sporting events and major entertainment venues. The FAA has actually created an app that can be downloaded on a smartphone and is called “B4UFly.” This app helps pilots determine where they are allowed to fly their drones.

The FAA regulations address commercial usage and safety considerations, whereas state laws tend to focus on the personal privacy interests of citizens and residents. For instance, several states have criminalized the use of drones and drone technology for “voyeuristic” purposes. In Virginia, it is a criminal misdemeanor for an individual to use a drone to enter another person’s property or space and spy on that person. In the rural state of Utah, it is a misdemeanor for someone to use a drone to harass or actively disturb another person’s livestock.

As the legal framework becomes more complex, drone technology is continuing to advance. For several years now, we have heard about companies like Amazon utilizing drones for delivery of packages to consumers. Last year, “Project Wing,” the Google X lab drone project, test delivered Chipotle burritos via drones to students at Virginia Tech. Drones carried burritos from a taco truck, through the air, and to the hungry underclassmen waiting at a delivery kiosk hundreds of yards away. In the commercial construction industry, management is well-aware that drones are less expensive than manned aircraft and faster than human inspectors and surveyors. Contractors are using drones and drone technology with increasing regularity to deploy materials and collect data inexpensively and efficiently.

Over the coming months, we will continue to track the laws and regulations affecting drone operators and users, as well as the drone industry’s technological advancements. Readers interested in using drones safely and effectively as part of their business should stay tuned, and, as always, feel free to contact us with questions or issues.

Ed Seglias is the Vice President as well as a Shareholder and a member of the Board of Directors of Cohen Seglias. Ed is a Partner in the Firm’s Construction Group, and concentrates his practice in construction law and commercial litigation. 

Robert John O’Brien is an Associate and a member of the Firm’s Construction Group. He focuses his practice on complex commercial and construction litigation.

Matthew R. Skaroff is an Associate in the Firm’s Construction Group and concentrates his practice in construction litigation.