They are referred to as unmanned aircraft (“UA”), unmanned aerial vehicles (“UAV”), unmanned aerial systems (“UAS”), remotely piloted aircraft (“RPA”), remotely piloted vehicles (“RPV”), and remotely piloted air systems (“RPAS”). Some of these terms are uniquely distinguishable from others, but they have all been found to fall under one generic category – drones. After all, “a rose is a rose . . .”—and you know the rest. To further sub-categorize, drones fall into two classes: fixed-wing drones that fly similar to an airplane; and vertical take-off and landing drones (“VTOL”), which are similar to helicopters. Although some VTOLs have more than four propellers, a typical VTOL has four propellers and is often referred to as either a “quadcopter” or “quad.” The quadcopter is the most popular drone among private users of drones.
With all of the publicity and discussion in the media about military drones, many people do not realize that individuals can purchase and own drones. Small quadcopters, about the size of an adult hand, can cost approximately $30, and have a range of up to 50 feet. Camera-equipped quadcopters, approximately 18 inches in diameter, can be purchased for as low as $150 while more sophisticated models can be of larger diameter and cost up to $3,000. Depending on the type of model and price, quadcopters can have a range of up to two miles and potentially reach altitudes of several hundred feet. Currently, no training or licensure is required to operate personal quadcopters. As a result of these factors, and the ease of take-offs and landings, quadcopters are gaining popularity in the recreational sector and certain businesses. One of the larger manufacturers of small quadcopters, DJI, is believed to sell approximately 10,000 units weekly. However, just as with the introduction of the automobile a little over a century ago, legal issues now loom on the horizon for drones and those who use them.
In all likelihood, the most prevalent types of legal issues involve personal injuries and property damage. For example, in a recent incident, while a photographer was attempting to secure aerial photographs of a bride and groom using a camera-equipped quadcopter, he lost control of it and it hit the groom in the head, causing lacerations to his eye and cheek. [Fortunately for the photographer, the groom was very forgiving and understanding.] In another incident in Virginia, a quadcopter crashed into a crowd of spectators watching an event and injured four people. In Manhattan, a quadcopter flew into the side of a high-rise building and plummeted to the sidewalk 300 feet below. Likewise, an athlete in an Australian triathlon was seriously injured when a quadcopter collided with her. While some injuries are caused by operators losing control of the device, other injuries result from the quadcopter simply falling from the sky after exceeding its range limit or from battery failure.
Aside from personal injury and property damage, using drones could result in other legal actions such as invasion of privacy and trespassing. Recently, in Portland, Oregon, a tenant spotted a quadcopter hovering outside a window of her 26th-floor apartment. As it turned out, the quadcopter was being operated by a developer who was photographing a site for a 20-story office building. One can imagine the claims that might be made if someone were to secure potentially embarrassing photographs of an individual who believes they are safely behind a high privacy fence.
At this time, private use of drones have been banned in all of America’s 401 national parks. This past April, a quadcopter disturbed a herd of bighorn sheep at Zion National Park, resulting in the adults becoming separated from the younger animals. But as with other developing technologies and hi-tech toys, drones are here and are gaining in popularity. Recreational owners of quadcopters should be sure that they are covered by liability insurance. Although specific language about “drones” is almost certainly lacking (at this point) in most homeowner insurance policies, some policies will generally cover personal injury and property damage resulting from quadcopters. Owners of quadcopters should either read their policies or contact their insurance companies to be certain. While homeowner policies might cover private personal use, coverage may not apply if quadcopters are used for business purposes (e.g., securing photos for sale or business use, etc.). But there can be a very fine line regarding what constitutes a business versus personal use, such as farmers using drones for monitoring their crops. At this point, under general policy coverages, claims and lawsuits for invasion of privacy and trespassing might not be covered. Some insurance companies provide coverage specifically for the operation of quadcopters. However, the cost of premiums may depend on the owner’s training and expertise in the operation of quadcopters, as well as the use to which it is put. The bottom line: having fun with this hobby can come at a cost, a cost for which you should be prepared.
[This is the first in a planned series of articles on the subject of legal issues related to personal drones and their use.]
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