UAS law firm addresses pent-up demand for UAV use

By Luke Geiver | September 18, 2014

Donald Mark is leveraging a law career linked to the aviation industry into an unmanned aerial vehicle law practice. Mark, founder of Minnesota-based Fafinski Mark & Johnson, will help to lead a team equipped to advise and represent a range of clients from large-scale UAV manufacturers to small-time operators. Although FMJ is headquartered in Minnesota, the law group represents Fortune 500 companies, international clients from Sweden to Dubai and recently, FMJ represented an aviation client in a case that made it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We felt like the time was right to launch this new group. We’ve been watching the technology very closely,” Mark said. “When the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration puts rules to paper we are going to see an explosion of uses for the UAS industry.”

Although Mark believes the U.S. is behind other parts of the world, namely Japan, in the use and acceptance of UAVs, his team has already begun to consult clients wishing to use the technology. “There is a pent up demand and we have been consulting with a variety of clients that are anxious and ready to start utilizing UAVs,” he said.

For UAV manufacturing clients, FMJ explains potential liability and certification issues. Under current FAA rules, UAVs used for commercial purposes must receive a certificate of authorization without incurring possible fines. For operators, Mark and his team explain technology offerings and the possible role of insurance. “I think the insurance industry will have a lot to say about drones and how they are utilized. If you want to get insurance, you will have to abide by the qualifications that the insurance companies will require,” he said.

Many of FMJ’s clients to date have been in the precision agriculture sector, Mark said. “The farmers have figured it out,” he said of the agricultural communities embrace and understanding of the opportunities presented by the implementation of UAS into day-to-day operations. Other industries will immediately benefit from the use of UAVs following the formal rulemaking by the FAA, including utilities, oil and gas and even football teams. “We are now seeing some sports teams that are using UAVs to get a better view of football practices. They can view from above what a pulling guard is actually doing. It is pretty remarkable and we are going to see uses in the next two to five years that we haven’t even thought of,” Mark said.

While the team continues to monitor new technologies and state-level regulations, FMJ is still asked a simple question: are UAVs legal?

“The simple answer is that if it is for any commercial purpose, you have to obtain a COA,” he said. The vast majority of COA’s are issued to law enforcement or educational institutions, he added. “Absent from the COA you run the risk of violating FAA regulations and being fined. I would guess though,” he also said,” that it wouldn’t surprise me to learn there are people out there violating the law every single day.”

As the FAA continues to work on UAS rulemaking, Mark and his team are undergoing current UAS success while planning for future growth. “15 years ago we started with three lawyers and one assistant. In that time frame, we have built the firm to 28 lawyers and 20 staff people,” he said. “I think that this technology is going to be positively impact our law firm.”