The FAA’s Drone Registration Requirement: A Brief Review

CHRISTMAS MORNING – SOMEWHERE IN AMERICA

A 12-year old boy opens a large package under the tree as his mom looks on with a tired smile.  “A drone!” the boy exclaims. “Just what I wanted! Thanks, Mom! Can I fly it, now? Can I, please?”

“I’m sorry, hon,” his mom sighs, “but you’re going to have to wait. Daddy’s still on the FAA website.”

And there you have it.  For the first time in the history of Christmas, an agency of the United States government will require you to register your child’s toy before he can begin to play with it.

Why?  Good question.

Section 336 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 contains an express prohibition, that the FAA “may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft. . . .”  We naively assumed that, when Congress says that an agency “may not” do a thing, the agency indeed “may not” do it.

But nothing will upset the Constitutional order of the Republic faster than a bout of media-driven hysteria. The FAA has taken the position that all drones – including what were traditionally called model aircraft – are “aircraft” within the meaning of the Federal Air Regulations.  Taking its cue from panic over sightings of drones coming too close to manned aircraft, the FAA suddenly decided that 49 U.S.C. § 44102 gives it the authority to require registration of all drones, regardless of whether they are operated recreationally or professionally.

A task force of very capable individuals was quickly set up to provide recommendations to the FAA on drone registration.  Their proposal was subjected to a lightning-fast comment period which, depending on who you ask, may or may not have violated the Administrative Procedure Act.

The Final Interim Rule (a title which leads us to suppose that the rule isn’t FINAL final) on drone registration has been published, here.

The putative purpose of the registration requirement:

The estimate for 2015 sales indicates that 1.6 million small unmanned aircraft intended to be used as model aircraft are expected to be sold this year (including approximately 50 percent of that total during the fourth quarter of 2015). With this rapid proliferation of new sUAS will come an unprecedented number of new sUAS owners and operators who are new to aviation and thus have no understanding of the NAS [National Airspace System – ed.] or the safety requirements for operating in the NAS.

The risk of unsafe operation will increase as more small unmanned aircraft enter the NAS. Registration will provide a means by which to quickly identify these small unmanned aircraft in the event of an incident or accident involving the sUAS. Registration of small unmanned aircraft also provides an immediate and direct opportunity for the agency to educate sUAS owners on safety requirements before they begin operating.

Let’s unpack that last paragraph:

1) The risk of unsafe operation will increase as more small unmanned aircraft enter the NAS.

Well, maybe. The fact is that we don’t really know. Numerous reports of “drone strikes” on manned aircraft have turned out to be false.  In any event, Congress expressly prohibited any “rule or regulation” concerning model aircraft.  We are unaware of the FAA’s authority to circumvent Congress.  Indeed, it is almost laughable that the FAA seized the authority to require registration while claiming, for example, that it lacks statutory authority to waive the airman certification requirement under Section 333 or to waive the registration fee requirement for model aircraft.

2) Registration will provide a means by which to quickly identify these small unmanned aircraft in the event of an incident or accident involving the sUAS.

This makes two very large assumptions, neither of which is likely to be valid.  First, there have been almost no incidents of alleged threats to the NAS in which the offending drone has been recovered.  Without recovery, there will be no identification.

Second, it assumes 100% compliance with the registration requirement.  We frankly doubt that the level of compliance will be anything approaching 100%.  We especially doubt that those who are intent on causing harm or, at least, mischief, are likely to comply.

3) Registration of small unmanned aircraft also provides an immediate and direct opportunity for the agency to educate sUAS owners on safety requirements before they begin operating.

This might be true if the rule had either a point of sale requirement (unworkable) or required a device that prevented the drone from being operated before it was registered (some drone companies build this sort of requirement into their devices).  But the rule does neither.

In addition to being likely ineffective and almost certainly contrary to law, the FAA registry will present a significant likelihood of exposing private data to the public.

The drone registration site is here.

The deadlines for compliance is December 21, 2015 for drones that are intended to be used exclusively as model aircraft but never flown, February 19, 2016 for drones that have been previously operated as model aircraft.

Merry Christmas!

FAA Publishes Drone Registration Rules

Other than a few blurbs on Twitter, I haven’t had much to say about the pending rules on drone registration, primarily because it was unclear to me just how it could work, especially vis a vis hobbyists.  And it seemed especially unlikely to achieve the putative goal of allowing authorities to trace drones that endanger other aircraft back to their owners.

As I have said in the past, where the burden imposed by a regulation significantly outweighs the chance of getting caught, the likely result will be a lot of non-compliance.  And, as with many things, the people who do comply are unlikely to be the people that you need to worry about.

But I also know some of the stakeholders who participated in crafting the rule, and I wanted to wait and give them the benefit of the doubt.  They were given an enormous task, and very little time to come up with a solution.

Following a breakneck rule-making timeline, the interim final rule on drone registration has now been published.  It goes into effect next Monday.

FAA Grants Section 333 Exemption for Paper Airplane

Yes, you read that correctly.  The FAA got massively trolled by Peter Sachs, who applied for and received a Section 333 Exemption to commercially operate a PowerUp 3.0 Smart Phone-controlled paper airplane.  From the article by John Goglia:

His exemption allows him to “conduct aerial photography and videography” with the powered paper airplane so long as he meets dozens of conditions specified in the exemption and attached certificate of authorization. I asked the FAA for comment on whether granting the exemption indicates that the FAA considers a powered paper airplane an unmanned aircraft system, or UAS. An FAA spokesperson responded that “Mr. Sachs submitted a valid petition for exemption, and we granted the requested relief.”

And while Mr. Sachs has a helicopter pilot’s license, he is not current, which means that, in order to operate his paper airplane, he will need to spend thousands of dollars to become current or to hire a pilot.

You can read the exemption and application, here.

This brings to mind the ruling of the law judge in the Pirker case, wherein he found that the FAA’s position, vis a vis regulation of model aircraft, would lead to the “risible argument that a flight in the air of, e.g., a paper aircraft, or a toy balsa wood glider, could subject the ‘operator’ to the regulatory provisions of [14 C.F.R. part 91 and] Section 91.13(a).”  As we know, an appellate panel at the NTSB rejected that notion.

Well, now we know.

About that handgun-firing drone

A knucklehead in Connecticut has caused quite the media firestorm over his video of a semi-automatic handgun being fired from a small drone.  I have received some media inquiries about whether it is legal or not.  The answer is that it depends.

Based on the video, it appears that this occurred on private property, away from any buildings or people.  The FAA does not seem to have a regulation that would prohibit discharging a firearm from a drone under those circumstances.

The closest thing you will find is FAR § 91.13, which prohibits the reckless operation of an aircraft (the FAA relied on this section in the Rafael Pirker case), and § 91.15, which prohibits dropping objects from an aircraft.  But both regulations apply only where the activity poses a danger to life or property.  That does not appear to be the case, here.

The more likely resource for determining the legality of this particular drone would be state law governing the handling and discharge of firearms.  These regulations vary by state, but in general one would look to whether a firearm was discharged in a reckless manner that posed a danger to others, or in a built-up area or an area zoned for housing.  You can review Florida’s law, here.

Does this presage the weaponization of private drones?  I doubt it.  The video seems to vindicate something I wrote back in October:

[A] small drone is unlikely to be a useful weapons platform. As anyone who has fired a gun can attest, the kickback from discharging a firearm would be just as likely to send a small drone tumbling out of the sky as it would be for the drone to hit its intended target.

The video proves the point.  The operator does not have any reasonable semblance of control over the weapon, and at one point he clearly seems to be downrange of the weapon.  That’s a big no-no among gun owners.

Having said that, I could foresee someone developing an “FPV drone paint-ball” war game (patent pending).  Where that would fit with FAA regulations and state firearms law might be a topic for another post.

sUAS Apples to Amazon Oranges

Amazon Prime Air

Two news items on drone rules have some reporters comparing sUAS apples to Amazon oranges. The first is that, yes, hallelujah, the FAA expects to finalize its sUAS rules within a year.  The other news is the congressional testimony of Amazon VP Paul Misener that his company’s drone delivery technology will be ready to roll out in about a year, as well.

Several reporters, including the one cited above, have leapt to the conclusion that Amazon PrimeAir can start deliveries as soon as the final sUAS rule has been published.  See here and here.  Not so fast.

The NPRM that will be finalized next year only contemplates flights that are remotely operated by a single pilot, within visual line of sight.  While the NPRM invites comments on using drones for air carriers, Amazon’s PrimeAir business plan contemplates something much more complex – multiple, autonomous flights, well beyond visual line of sight.

The Daily Mail, of all publications, gets it right – that the launch of PrimeAir will completely depend on the FAA making major changes to the proposed rules. It is therefore highly unlikely that the final sUAS rule will address Amazon’s proposed method for drone delivery.

In fact, it is more likely that the FAA would issue an entirely separate NPRM for autonomous drone delivery services like that contemplated by Amazon. This would, in turn, be subject to the usual notice and comment period.

The upshot is that, while we are thankfully only a year away from having a final sUAS rule for remote-controlled, visual line of sight operations, we are, unfortunately, probably still years away from autonomous drone deliveries.

This could change, of course, should Congress decide to intervene. But for now, no such discussion appears to be on the table.

Florida’s New Drone Law: Fulltime Employment for Lawyers?

Nothing can kill the growth of the commercial drone industry so much as bad laws and misguided regulations. And much as we discuss the issues surrounding federal regulation of drones, the industry faces equally difficult challenges at the state level, where an odd coalition of reactionaries from both the left and far-right have clamored for strict regulations on the use of drones, if not outright bans. State legislators are feeling the heat.

The Lawyers are lapping at my doorstep!Enter Florida’s new drone law.

Last week, Governor Scott signed Senate Bill 766 – called the Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act (“FUSA”) – into law.  This new law adds language to Florida’s existing drone law, found at Section 934.50, Florida Statutes, providing for additional protections against drone surveillance, as well as providing a private right of action for violations.

Some have warned that the law will lead to a wave of litigation. For reasons that I will explain in a moment, I am not so sure. In any event, the law is definitely an example of poor draftsmanship, and it unfairly targets drone technology in a way that seems hypocritical. But its scope does not appear to be as broad as others have suggested.

First, some background:

In Florida v. Riley, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a police officer did not conduct a “search”, for purposes of the Fourth Amendment, when he observed a marijuana grow house from a helicopter that crossed the defendant’s property at 400 feet AGL (does that number seem familiar?). Relying on its prior opinion in California v. Ciraolo, in which police inspected the backyard of a house from a fixed-wing aircraft that was flying at 1,000 feet, the Court reasoned that “the home and its curtilage are not necessarily protected from inspection that involves no physical invasion.”

One might not like it, but for nearly three decades Riley and Ciraolo have been the standard for what constitutes a reasonable expectation of privacy on property as viewed from the air.

Thus, perhaps the most striking aspect of Florida’s FUSA is that it creates a “drone exception” to Riley and Ciraolo:

A person, a state agency, or a political subdivision as defined in s. 11.45 may not use a drone equipped with an imaging device to record an image of privately owned real property or of the owner, tenant, occupant, invitee, or licensee of such property with the intent to conduct surveillance on the individual or property captured in the image in violation of such persons reasonable expectation of privacy without his or her written consent. For purposes of this section, a person is presumed to have a reasonable expectation of privacy on his or her privately owned real property if he or she is not observable by persons located at ground level in a place where they have a legal right to be, regardless of whether he or she is observable from the air with the use of a drone.

In other words, you have no reasonable expectation of privacy if you’re observed from a manned aircraft, but you do have such an expectation of privacy when observed from a drone. Go figure.

The statute contains a number of exceptions, such as when law enforcement has obtained a search warrant or when exigent circumstances exist. It also enumerates exceptions for commercial operations, such as land surveys, power grid inspections and, oddly enough, cargo delivery.

But the first commercial exception paragraph is likely to cause some problems.  It starts out well enough, excepting images captured:

By a person or an entity engaged in a business or profession licensed by the state, or by an agent, employee, or contractor thereof, if the drone is used only to perform reasonable tasks within the scope of practice or activities permitted under such person’s or entity’s license.

That would seem to cover realtors, doctors, and lawyers, right?  I’m just kidding. Lawyers and doctors don’t really need to spy on people.

Well, actually, lawyers do hire “agents” and “contractors” to spy on people. They’re called private investigators. And herein lies a problem:

However, this exception does not apply to a profession in which the licensee’s authorized scope of practice includes obtaining information about the identity, habits, conduct, movements, whereabouts, affiliations, associations, transactions, reputation, or character of any society, person, or group of persons.

In other words, if you’re a licensed private investigator, No exception for you! Which, by extension, means that lawyers also don’t get an exception. Unless they’re lawyers for the state, in which case they can get a search warrant. See how that works?

Speaking as a litigation professional, this is rather silly. Private Investigators are often called to check on whether someone is actually residing at a particular residence, or is hiding out to avoid service of process. Perhaps the legislature couldn’t figure out how to carve a narrow enough exception, or perhaps too many legislatures have been burned by divorce lawyers?

But the part that’s causing a lot of heartburn is the civil remedies provision:

The owner, tenant, occupant, invitee, or licensee of privately owned real property may initiate a civil action for compensatory damages for violations of this section and may seek injunctive relief to prevent future violations of this section against a person, state agency, or political subdivision that violates paragraph (3)(b). In such action, the prevailing party is entitled to recover reasonable attorney fees from the nonprevailing party based on the actual and reasonable time expended by his or her attorney billed at an appropriate hourly rate and, in cases in which the payment of such a fee is contingent on the outcome, without a multiplier, unless the action is tried to verdict, in which case a multiplier of up to twice the actual value of the time expended may be awarded in the discretion of the trial court.

This sounds scary, and it is. Attorney’s fees typically add up to an amount that is many times an actual damages award for these kind statutory remedies.  Some have suggested that the mere threat of a civil lawsuit poses a major hindrance to the development of commercial drones.  But does it really?

Let’s go back and look at what the statute prohibits: It says that a person

may not use a drone equipped with an imaging device to record an image of privately owned real property or of the owner, tenant, occupant, invitee, or licensee of such property with the intent to conduct surveillance on the individual or property captured in the image. . . .

So, a plaintiff would have to prove that the defendant had a specific intent to conduct surveillance on the person or property captured in the image. In other words, you’re not liable for capturing images by mistake, or even incidentally. You have to have a specific intent to conduct surveillance.

That is likely to be a very tough standard for a plaintiff to meet. Discerning plaintiff lawyers (and there are many, believe it or not) might decide it’s not worth the trouble.

But keep in mind that (a) there are a lot of hungry lawyers on the street; (b) questions regarding intent are put to juries; and (c) juries have a way of being unpredictable. So, you might have a lot to think about.

If you have concerns about compliance with Florida’s new FUSA, don’t hesitate to drop me a line or give me a call, via the “Contact” page at the top.

UPDATE: Every so often, I need to remind readers that nothing on this blog should be taken as legal advice. My posts are intended to provide the public with general information, and some light academic discussion. If you need legal advice, please call a lawyer.

Has the FAA Claimed Jurisdiction Over Indoor Airspace?

Words have consequences.

Recently, I reported on remarks from a panel of experts on sUAS integration at the AUVSI expo in Atlanta. One of the more interesting comments came from the FAA’s director of sUAS integration, James Williams, who said that navigable airspace is wherever an aircraft can safely operate. And because Congress chose to define sUAS as “aircraft” in the FMRA, anywhere a small drone could fly safely is, therefore, navigable airspace.

The FAA uses this tautology to justify its claim of jurisdiction over all airspace, from the ground up, regardless of whether a discrete area is surrounded by trees or buildings that would make navigation impossible for a manned aircraft. But the weakness in this argument becomes apparent when taken to its logical conclusion, that the FAA may also claim jurisdiction over indoor airspace.

I have heard from a number of commercial operators who have been hired to conduct inspections inside of large warehouses, for example.  We also know, based on public comments, that Amazon has been testing its PrimeAir drones in the U.S. in enclosed spaces. Obviously, these are spaces where drones can safely operate.

So, why hasn’t the FAA claimed jurisdiction over indoor airspace?

The obvious answer is that indoor operations do not threaten the national airspace system (“NAS”) (we discussed the scope of the NAS here and here). But that just begs the soundness of the FAA’s reasoning.  The criteria should not be whether a drone can safely operate in a given area, but whether operating in a given area poses any kind of danger to the NAS.

We understand that the FAA has a difficult job to do.  But that’s no excuse for engaging in administrative overreach.

FAA Announces UAS Pathfinder Program

Everyone at AUVSI’s Unmanned Systems 15 expo waited on needles and pins for the FAA’s mysterious announcement, scheduled today for 11 am, EDT.  Your humble correspondent was able to crowd into the doorway of the press room and grab a few snippets.

The big takeaway is somewhat anticlimactic:  The FAA announced what it calls its “UAS Pathfinder Program” – a public/private partnership between leading companies in three business sectors – CNN, Precision Hawk, and BNSF Railway.  The latter companies will be permitted to operate beyond visual line of sight, while CNN will be permitted to operate in densely populated urban areas within visual line of sight.

The fact that the FAA seems to be favoring three selected businesses may seem disappointing to some; however, there is reason for hope.

Recall that the NPRM specifically left the door open to developing standards for BVLOS operations. The FAA sees this new initiative as an opportunity to gather data on the viability of these operations being conducted by sUAS operators.  I translate this to mean that the FAA is seriously considering an amendment to the final rule that will allow for beyond visual line of sight and for operations in densely populated urban areas.

But the FAA is nothing if not a cautious body, as we have all learned.

UPDATE: Brendan Schulman remarked  to me that the FAA is likely to take five years to gather data from this program, so he is less optimistic about seeing a BVLOS component to the pending sUAS rule. At least, he doesn’t see it happening by next year. That’s a fair point. 

Welcome to Unmanned Systems 2015

I’m here in Atlanta at AUVSI’s Unmanned Systems 2015 conference and expo, where DroneLaw.Com has its own humble booth on the expo floor while I split my time attending various panel sessions.

Our Humble Booth

Our Humble Booth

Yesterday, I had the good fortune of attending a panel on Legal Updates on the Use of sUAS, which was moderated by Mickey Osterreicher, General Counsel for the National Press Photographers Association.  Sitting on the panel were James Williams, Manager of the FAA’s UAS Integration Office; Dr. Gregory McNeal, law professor and Forbes contributor whose reports on UAS integration have been priceless; trailblazing sUAS attorney Brendan Schulman of Pirker case fame; media lawyer Charles Tobin; and English solicitor (he had a funny joke about that word) Peter Lee.  Here’s a not very good picture of the panel (lighting was terrible):

From left: James Williams, Dr. Gregory McNeal; Brendan Schulman; Charles Tobin; and Peter Lee

From left: James Williams, Dr. Gregory McNeal; Brendan Schulman; Charles Tobin; and Peter Lee

The session mainly centered on critiques of the FAA’s rulemaking decisions, including its interpretation of Section 333.  Mr. Williams handled the slings and arrows with grace, and provided some plausible – if not completely satisfactory – explanations of the FAA’s thinking on various issues.

One of the primary themes was the FAA’s claim that it lacks statutory flexibility on interpreting its mandate under the FMRA.  Mr. Williams noted that he is not an attorney, so he relies on what his legal staff tells him. He said that Congress made the decision to define sUAS as “aircraft,” which in turn brings all UAS under the existing FAR framework until new rules can be crafted. That is why, he said, the FAA has no flexibility under Section 333 to waive the airman certification requirement.

The lawyers on the panel expressed their disagreement, and during Q&A I pointed out that the Chevron doctrine gave the FAA a lot more latitude than it was claiming.  But of course, Mr. Williams didn’t come here to be persuaded to change the FAA’s mind, but to explain the FAA’s point of view.

One of the more interesting comments came when Mr. Williams was asked about the FAA’s broad definition of “navigable airspace” for purposes of sUAS. He said, first, navigable airspace is wherever an aircraft can safely operate. Second, because Congress chose to define sUAS as “aircraft” in the FMRA, anywhere a small drone could fly safely was therefore navigable airspace.

A clever bit of circular reasoning. But there you have it.

The panel also discussed the proposed microdrone rule that Brendan Schulman filed on behalf of the UAS America Fund.  The debate focused on the issue of whether a small drone of less than three pounds posed a genuine risk to aircraft.  Mr. Schulman pointed out that, in the opinion of his client’s expert, that sort of mass was equivalent to a medium-sized bird.  The data we have on bird strikes indicates that such a mass poses no unusual threat to manned aircraft.

Mr. Williams rebutted that mass is just one aspect of the equation, the other is kinetic energy. He said that the FAA has been diligently search for available data on this question, but have so far come up empty. (I suggested that someone should rent Boeing’s “chicken cannon”.  Williams said that he has actually looked into that, but that it would be too much money for his budget.)

Finally, readers will want to know of any new insight into the timeline for publishing a final sUAS rule.  Williams said that the FAA was pleasantly surprised by the manageable number of comments – somewhere in the range of 4,700.  This bodes well for having a final rule published by next year.

 

Managing Drone Liability: Is New Legislation Necessary?

Crash

The question of drone liability is something that comes up, from time to time, in discussions with clients and in casual conversation.  The conventional wisdom one hears is that the unmanned systems and autonomous vehicles industry will never really take off until new laws have been enacted addressing liability when a vehicle causes injury to persons or property.

But is that really true?  Probably, not.  At least, not in the United States.

The fact is that the common law in the United States is amply well-suited to addressing unmanned systems liability issues, and that no major legislation is likely to be required in order for the industry to flourish.  We already have a system of laws governing automobile accident liability on the ground, and aircraft accident liability in the air. The distinctions vis a vis unmanned systems and autonomous vehicles are not legal, but factual

Liability for accidents, and injuries arising from accidents, breaks down into two basic categories: operational negligence and products liability.  Operational negligence is easy enough to understand: You run a red light and cause an accident, chances are (absent some extraordinary, intervening event) that you are liable for any damages.

It doesn’t matter if you lack sufficient experience and training. The law implies a duty to act in a manner consistent with that of a reasonable driver of ordinary skill.

On the other hand, products liability arises when a defect in the vehicle causes an injury.  If the defect existed when the vehicle left the factory, or at the time of sale, then the seller or manufacturer can be held strictly liable in tort for any injuries caused by the defect.  What constitutes a defect is a fact-sensitive question, but in general a product is defective if the risk is something that cannot be managed or foreseen by the operator, and is disproportionate to the product’s utility (or social utility).

That is why, for example, dangerous products with relatively little social utility, such as lawn darts (I’m showing my age!), can no longer be found on the market, while dangerous products with a great degree of utility, like chainsaws and farming combines, remain on the market.

Extreme events in products liability usually arise when a product having a high social utility, like a car, has a defect that makes it unreasonably dangerous to use. The GM ignition switch fiasco comes to mind as a recent example (although GM was able to avoid liability in that case due to the structured bankruptcy orchestrated by the government).

Other issues can come into play in products liability. For example, even if an aircraft is decades old the manufacturer can’t just ignore an airworthiness directive from the FAA regarding a known condition that might cause loss of control of the aircraft. But a manufacturer is not liable for defects in aftermarket parts and accessories that are incorporated into a vehicle after it is sold.

Among the manufacturer’s defenses to a products liability claim will be any facts suggesting negligence by the user. For example, if a product is used for a purpose for which it was not intended to be used, or the user failed to exercise reasonable care, the manufacturer might be off the hook. Thus, facts surrounding the operator/machine interface are often an issue in such disputes.

One can easily imagine how these principles will apply to drone liability. Questions will arise on how to sort out the standards for reasonableness of operator skill and risk/utility. But insurers, judges, juries and expert witnesses will be the primary drivers behind these determinations, not legislatures.