The Federal Aviation Administration on Sunday issued long-awaited proposed rules for the commercial use of unmanned aircraft—drones.
Until recently, drones were known principally as a U.S. military tool in countries like Pakistan. But more than a million small drones have been sold in the last few years, and regulators have become increasingly concerned about reckless flyovers.
The FAA wants commercial drone operators to pass a knowledge test—but not a pilot’s test—as well as a federal security check. The drones could travel as fast as 100 mph, at altitudes of 500 feet or lower.
Flights over people except those involved in the drone’s operation would be prohibited.
“We have tried to be flexible in writing these rules,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “We want to maintain today’s outstanding level of aviation safety without placing an undue regulatory burden on an emerging industry.”
With the drone industry taking off, one lawyer who welcomed the proposed regulations was Brendan Schulman, a special counsel at Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel who leads an interdisciplinary practice group in unmanned aircraft systems.
The firm established the team in 2013 because, according to a press release, “This technology is poised to impact countless industries, and the legal challenges ahead reflect the unprecedented intersection of regulatory policy, aviation law, property rights, data privacy, administrative law, land use regulation, criminal justice, insurance and intellectual property law, among other fields.”
Schulman, 40, a litigator, handles securities fraud cases, complex contract disputes, regulatory challenges, and corporate fiduciary duty claims and advises clients on ediscovery matters.
He has two decades of hands-on experience with unmanned aircraft, as a lawyer and a fan. He received his law degree from Harvard, where he was executive editor of its Journal of Law and Technology.
Q: How did you become interested in drones? Are unmanned aircraft a hobby of yours?
A: I’ve always been fascinated with airplanes. I got my first model airplane over 20 years ago and spent the summer building it and learning how to fly it. Ironically, it was a gift from a group of judges I was working for during an internship in college. I now I have over 20 different models in my garage but never enough time to fly them! “Drone” is the new buzzword for these remote-controlled airplanes and helicopters, which in the industry is referred to more technically as an unmanned aircraft system (UAS).
Q: Have unmanned aircraft become more sophisticated and/or less costly, making them attractive to more people?
A: At the consumer level, they are definitely more reliable, easier to use off-the-shelf, and cheaper. Many of them are operated with push-of-the-button smartphone apps and don’t require learning how to manipulate control sticks. So while those barriers to entry have fallen, I actually think it is the cameras that are drawing people to the technology more than an interest in aeronautics. People really like the idea of personal aerial photography and drones have even become a popular photography tool at weddings. And they have become more sophisticated too, capable of flying programmed waypoints using GPS and using sensors to navigate around obstacles, so people involved in robotics have also taken an interest in the technology.
Q: How are drones being used commercially? What other uses do you expect in the near future?
A: There are already countless beneficial applications. The most visible one is aerial photography and videography, often used in TV advertising or movies. I counted at least six ads with obvious drone-shot aerial footage during the Super Bowl. But civilian drones do more than just take nice pictures, they have saved lives. One of my clients, Texas EquuSearch, is a volunteer-run non-profit organization that uses drones to help find missing people. Its drone (which consists of a five-pound model aircraft with a digital camera) is credited with rescuing two kidnapped girls alive and making 11 recoveries of remains that otherwise would not have been found. Dangerous jobs like power line inspection can be done more safely, efficiently, and in a more environmentally-friendly way by using a battery-powered drone instead of a manned helicopter. This technology is poised to revolutionize agriculture, environmental studies, wildlife management, disaster response, building inspection, and countless other industries. I’ve even seen one system that can, in minutes, create a scan of a building exterior and send the data to a 3D printer to create a scale model, something that is impossible to do any other way. As was the case with the Internet in the 1990’s, we are only beginning to see where this technology will take us.