UAS law firms take different approaches

From operations to liability, UAS law firms are providing several forms of guidance for UAS-linked businesses and private operators. These three firms explain the current trends in UAS law.
By Emily Aasand | November 25, 2014

While the United States unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) industry is still waiting on the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to deliver its flight regulations for civil and commercial use of unmanned vehicles, many law firms are forming UAS units to assist clients with legal issues pertaining to the developing technology. Some firms offer advisement for manufacturing and operating clients, others offer assistance with the rule making process, while some are proposing preemptions to the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking issued by FAA.

Hunton & Williams LLP recently announced the formation of a UAS integration unit to assist clients with the legal complexities associated with the developing commercial UAS regulations. The firm will be able to assist with issues regarding the rulemaking process of the FAA, the National Transportation Safety Board, and other state and federal agencies.

“Our view, in general, is that with emerging technology like this, which has so many obvious applications for various uses, that there are lots of other opportunities that many folks haven’t even considered yet. We think there’s just such a broad range of applications that clients like ours could use the technology for and it’s not just the UAS platform itself, but what it can do for them, how they’re implementing that into their businesses, and that, I think, provides a rich landscape of opportunity for them to do things faster, better, cheaper, and in ways they hadn’t envisioned before,” said Michael Sievers, a counsel at Hunton & Williams.

“Coupling all that with a regulatory environment that’s just being born around this technology, we certainly saw a need for our clients to have some advice in navigating that landscape, influencing that landscape if they can or have that desire, but otherwise, really learning with it and complying with it,” said Sievers.

“Our UAS integration unit’s current initiatives include collaborating with clients to develop internal working groups to include representatives from legal, new technologies, risk management, privacy and security and aviation departments; risk management, privacy and security and aviation departments; and participation in joint efforts of industry, trade groups and government to clarify rules regarding the operation of UAS and related systems,” Hunton & Williams said.

The UAS integration unit is part of the larger Unmanned Systems Group and is led by Sievers, Doug Kenyon, Eric Murdock, and Lisa Sotto. The unit includes business, litigation and regulatory professionals who will monitor and participate in the developments of regulatory programs for UAS and other unmanned systems.

“The use of these emerging technologies draws on the areas of the law in which we have significant proficiency, such as aviation, environmental, government relations, insurance, maritime patent, privacy and data protection, products liability, property and land rights, risk management, technology and transportation,” said Hunton & Williams.

Like partners at Hunton & Williams, Donald Mark is also 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 lead a team equipped to advise and represent a range of clients from large-scale UAV manufacturers to small-time operators. The law group represents Fortune 500 companies, international clients from Sweden to Dubai and recently, 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,” said Mark. “When the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration puts rules to paper we are going to see an explosion of uses for the UAS industry.”

FMJ explains potential liability and certification issues, for UAV manufacturing clients. 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 says. “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, including utilities, oil and gas and even sports teams, will benefit from the imminent FAA rulemaking. “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’s pretty remarkable and we’re going to see uses in the next two to five years that we haven’t even thought of,” Mark said.

McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP has joined Hunton & Williams, FMJ, as well as other U.S. law firms in capitalizing on the UAS industry’s need for advisement. The firm recently petitioned the FAA, on behalf of its UAS Advisory Group, requesting that any notice of proposed rulemaking issued by the FAA addressing small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) including a regulation that preempts state and local regulation of sUAS including design, sale, distribution or operation.

“What we’re requesting is that the FAA, as part of their federal rulemaking process, where they define the operation use of navigable airspace in UAS, include a preemption provision that says essentially no state can regulate the use of UAS,” said Mark Dombroff, a McKenna partner who formerly headed the U.S. Department of Justice’s aviation litigation group.

“The language we’re proposing would preempt, in other words preclude, any state UAS specific laws relating to the design, use or operation of UAS even if it’s for the purpose of privacy,” said Larry Ebner, a nationally recognized authority on federal preemption.

The petition, which was prepared in union with McKenna attorneys, explained that a sUAS preemption regulation would be in the public interest and preserve and promote aviation safety.

“The FAA has the know-how, experience, and personnel for regulating UAS on a nationally uniform basis,” said Ebner. “Allowing each state to adopt its own UAS regulations would jeopardize aviation and public safety by undermining national uniformity.”

“At McKenna, our UAS Advisory Group is focused on policy-making during this critical period of federal rulemaking that will shape the regulatory world in which the UAS industry will live, said Lisa Ellman, co-chair of McKenna’s UAS practice. 

Author: Emily Aasand
Staff Writer, UAS Magazine
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