POSTED BY Jeremiah Chapin

There’s a big difference between the million dollar remote controlled surveillance drones patrolling conflict areas, and the tech enthusiast’s quasi helicopter-like remote controlled device equipped with a GoPro (digital video recorder). Or is there?


It hasn’t taken long for these futuristic devices known as aviation drones to be made available for public purchase and use. But is this one of those industries where the law is painfully lagging behind a tech trend and unable to adapt? Seems that way.


These devices (depending on how much you spend) allow a consumer without any type of aviation license to maneuver an airborne device via remote control while it hovers hundreds of feet in the air over private property– often recording quite amazing video footage. This footage is then usually uploaded to social media sites and subsequently strewn across the web for anyone to view. The footage is often quite amazing, and it is no surprise that people are finding a hobby in capturing and sharing it.


But it begs the question, where do we draw the line between a seemingly harmless hobby and a serious invasion of privacy or potential security threat? The Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) has learned the hard way that junior’s benign remote control racecar has a controversial (and, from a legislative standpoint, potentially lethal) cousin in the aviation drone. A recent federal law requires the FAA to allow personal drones to be used for commercial purposes such as photography, crop dusting, real estate sales, etc. However the FAA has yet to define exactly the rules for recreational use. As of now, they have placed rough guidelines that restrict use to altitudes below 700 ft. and away from airports and major metropolitan areas. Everywhere else seems to be fair game. The laws may become more restrictive, but as of now there is little indication as to when and in what way.


The potential legal issues these drones pose are endless. From helping a drug runner move his product, to a Peeping Tom’s dream-come-true, there is no question we will be seeing more and more of these devices in court. More advanced versions know as First Person View Drones (“FPVDs”), which allow the user to fly longer distances through utilizing a live camera feed on the drone that transmits real time footage to the operator, may even be banned. Clearly, using the device for illicit purposes will result in prosecution of the individual operating it, but does that mean the manufacturer could be subject to liability as well? To avoid legal quagmire, the law surrounding personal drones must be made firm, and fast. Do we restrict use to people with permits that pass criminal background checks? Do we restrict use to certain designated areas?  Do we limit the technology and risk jeopardizing economic and academic growth? Or is there a fundamental right inherent to all Americans to build, own, operate, and enjoy the use of their personal drones? Our founding fathers certainly didn’t foresee this one coming…


Historically, individuals who are in public places or anywhere visible to the public have relinquished any personal expectation of privacy therein. And, because airspace under a certain elevation is considered uncontrolled and therefore technically open to the public, a drone flying over someone’s backyard would not violate ones privacy – in a legal sense. Troublesome as this may seem to anyone considering the idea of an unknown drone hovering above their family barbecue or pool party, these concerns are only the tip of the iceberg. In a fledgling industry that is rapidly evolving, it has become clear that manufacturers, consumers, and law enforcement all need a set of rules to play by.


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