Aviation & Space Law

Amazon's delivery drone plan presents 'a legal minefield'

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Updated: Amazon’s plans for delivery drones, announced Sunday on 60 Minutes, are more publicity stunt than reality, according to an op-ed in the Guardian.

Delivery drones are “a legal minefield,” the article says. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos acknowledged in the 60 Minutes interview that the most difficult challenge will be persuading the Federal Aviation Administration to allow the deliveries, according to coverage by the New York Times Bits blog. Currently small drones like those that will be used by Amazon can’t be used without special permission, Forbes reports.

The agency has set a 2015 deadline to enable commercial drones, but the Guardian judges the deadline to be “all but impossible.” The Guardian also poses some questions: What stops someone from stealing the drone package? What happens when the kid next door shoots down the drone with his BB gun?

The article foresees potential lawsuits filed by people injured by falling drones.

Another Forbes story says the FAA has lots of work ahead before approving delivery drones. The agency will have to develop rules for operator training and drone capabilities, and will need to understand the privacy implications, the story says.

Lawyer2Lawyer discussed the issue in a podcast with Above the Law blogger Elie Mystal and with Ben Gielow, the government relations manager and general counsel for the advocacy sector of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

Mystal said accidents are bound to happen and he is worried about the liability issues. If a drone falls out of the sky, he asks, will it be considered an act of God or can a person obtain damages in a lawsuit? And who is at fault in an accident—the commercial operator, the manufacturer or the pilot? Courts will have a lot to sort out, he said.

Mystal also sees privacy implications for a device that is able to find you and capture you on video “at a much more invasive level than we’ve ever seen before.” Gielow, however, pointed to decisions that allow picture-taking in navigable airspace, and says the issue will be what constitutes a navigable airspace for unmanned aircraft.

Three states—Texas, Idaho and Oregon—have already passed laws restricting private drone use or photography by private drones, according to Computerworld. Idaho’s law, which prevents any photography by for-profit drones, raises First Amendment concerns, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. The Oregon law bars drones from flying less than 400 feet above a property of a person who asks for the limit.

Besides liability and privacy issues, Gielow noted insurance questions. Some insurance companies are looking at the market, but the risk level is still unknown, he said. “No one really has a solution or an answer to a lot of these questions,” he said. “We’re going to have to see how this plays out as this technology is incrementally allowed to fly in the airspace.”

Updated on Dec. 18 to include information from the Lawyer2Lawyer podcast and Computerworld.

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