Using a drone for any commercial purpose (e.g., site survey, investigations, orientation, and aerial filming) is illegal without a specific FAA exemption, or if the drone is operated beyond the scope of an exemption. A recent operator is facing a $2 million fine from the FAA.

Your insurance policy likely excludes coverage for drone claims. You must obtain separate coverage specific to use of drones. Some insurers have begun offering fairly inexpensive coverage for the commercial use of drones. Recreational drone use can be covered through endorsements on a homeowners’ policy, and merely joining certain associations may entitle you to automatic coverage. Also, some companies will provide coverage regardless of whether or not the drone is operated under an FAA exemption.

Drone claims are real. The potential areas of liability for operators include property damage and personal injuries related to errant drone operations (think about a chain reaction highway accident, or a wrongful death claim related to a 50 pound object falling from 200 feet), invasion of privacy, nuisance, and harassment. Serious injuries and deaths have been suffered in the past few years from unsafe drone operations.

FAA enforcement
FAA penalties can reach millions of dollars. These penalties are also unlikely to be covered by any insurance policy. It is easy to violate the numerous restrictions in the Federal Aviation Regulations and any applicable waiver. The FAA enforcement procedure is rife with snares to trap the unwary. It is extremely important to retain knowledgeable counsel at the soonest opportunity; even before the FAA contacts you, if possible. Some FAA liability can be avoided after an incident has already occurred by timely filing appropriate paperwork.

No commercial use of drones is allowed without an FAA exemption! Exemptions are available for a variety of missions including: construction monitoring, video promotions, building inspections, virtual property tours, news gathering, and accident investigations.

Other laws
States and municipalities are rapidly enacting laws, ordinances, and regulations on drone operations, and the federal government has not yet issued its final rules.

Help is available
SmithAmundsen’s Aerospace Group has represented drone operators in FAA enforcement cases, we have assisted drone operators in developing operating policies and complying with federal regulations, and we have advised insurance companies in implementing drone coverage. We work closely with the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA).
We helped the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) provide comments to the proposed small UAS rules. We serve on the drone committee for the Flight School Association of North America (FSANA). We don’t just help our clients comply with the rules – we study, analyze, and work to better craft the developing rules. We have been invited to make presentations to the EAA, Women in Aviation International (WAI), National Construction Liability Meeting, and we are the attorneys who news outlets turn to when they want to understand these issues.

By Brandt Madsen & Alan Farkas of SmithAmundsen