Today's Drones Fly in Murky Legal Skies

July 21, 2014 04:50 AM
 
drone legal

Imagine this scenario. You just bought a drone, outfitted it with a small camera, and flew a route that traveled 200 feet across your garden at an altitude of 50 feet. The photos reveal a bad armyworm problem in the tomatoes, so you go out and spray them, confident you just saved this year’s canning season.

All of this is perfectly legal under the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.

Now imagine this scenario. You just bought a drone, outfitted it with a small camera, and flew a route that traveled 200 feet across your cornfield at an altitude of 50 feet. The photos reveal a bad armyworm problem in the corn, so you go out and spray them, confident you just saved this year’s crop.

Same drone. Same camera. Same distance and altitude. Still legal, right?

"It’s unclear," says John Dillard, an attorney with OFW Law. Dillard has spoken with hundreds of farmers about commercial drone use, which is currently not authorized by the FAA. "Even if you’re operating on your own farm and following all of the current model aircraft guidelines, it’s still a commercial use as the FAA has defined it."

Part of the problem is that unmanned aerial systems (UAS) use has proliferated quickly in the past several years, while it takes time for laws to be established or changed in Washington, D.C.

"What we’ve seen is, the technology has outpaced the law," he says.

The FAA has been authorized by Congress to finalized a plan for "safe integration" of UAS by September 30, 2015. Dillard expects that the agency will release its proposed regulations for drones that weigh less than 55 pounds this fall. It’s too early to tell what such a plan would look like, but Dillard says once it is in place, that won’t mean anything goes, either. Farmers will need to keep safe and responsible use at the forefront of owning and operating a drone.

"If you operate a drone, you accept responsibility for your actions," Dillard says. "If you hit a person or damage property, there are legal consequences for that beyond whatever happens at the FAA."

As a starting point, Dillard offers up six examples of reasonable care of this technology:

• Training
• Equipment maintenance
• Following manufacturer’s instructions
• Complying with safety regulations and guidelines
• Avoiding the potential for collisions with people or property
• Avoiding manned aircraft, including aerial applicators

"Above all, employ common sense," he says.

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