Drones: A Brave New Legal World
It’s a brave new world—for pizza. Domino’s pizza is just a short drone delivery away for residents of a small New Zealand town. Customers opt into drone delivery service and then order online or through the Domino’s app to get the pie they desire within 10 minutes. Delivery is surprisingly simple—the pizza is placed within a regular pizza box and then loaded into a sturdier container that connects to the bottom of the drone. The drone takes off and flies to the customer’s house, where it hovers by the customer’s backyard and lowers the pizza box down by a tow cable. The drone flies back to Domino’s as customers enjoy their still warm pizza. The technology behind Domino’s deliveries was created by Flirtey—a drone company that has been delivering goods by drones in New Zealand for years. Flirtey now has its sights set on the U.S. drone market. It recently moved its headquarters to Reno, Nevada, and has conducted a myriad of tests, with the blessing of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), including delivering medical supplies in rural Virginia and to a boat off New Jersey’s coast.
The e-commerce giant, Amazon, owns over a dozen patents covering drones, including flying warehouses that act as both floating airborne fulfillment centers (AFC) and launch pads for drones to deliver items within minutes. The AFC would hover at an altitude of around 45,000 feet, and drones descend from the AFC and are guided to its delivery destination. One use that Amazon reveals for its warehouse blimp is to deliver certain items, such as food or merchandise, to customers at a football game. Ahead of the game, the AFC would be stocked with items and deploy drones to deliver items ordered by fans during the game. The AFC also serves as a giant advertising board, allowing customers to order the items on display. The individual drones are recharged when they return to the warehouse airship. Other patents allow Amazon to use tall buildings and structures, such as lampposts or churches, as docking stations for drones to recharge. Others enable drones to “talk” to each other to plan routes and communicate about weather conditions and even drop deliveries using parachutes.
Since December 2016, Amazon has been testing drone deliveries to customers in rural England—the first delivery was an Amazon Fire streaming device and popcorn. The start of customer trials for its drone delivery service, which Amazon calls “Prime Air,” is a milestone for technology that could ultimately supplant the U.S. Postal Service and other ground delivery services, such as Fed Ex and UPS. Drone delivery has environmental benefits by reducing reliance on pollution-belching vehicles. But the biggest boon is to customers who could receive their orders in lightning fast time.
Other retailers have patents and plans for the use of drones. Walmart has patented a system using drones to shuttle products between different departments inside its stores. The idea is to free customers from walking across its super-sized emporiums to find what they want and waiting while employees return from far-away storerooms. The drones buzz above customers’ heads by being routed over shelves inside of store aisles. Each store would have a computer system functioning as an automated air traffic control for dispatching drones and deciding flight paths within the store.
Other commercial uses of drones include supplying Internet service, realtors photographing property by aerial view, news organizations filming events from above, oil companies inspecting oil rigs and pipelines, utilities inspecting power and telephone lines, and farmers inspecting crop growth. Insurance companies launch drones to survey storm, tornado and fire damage instead of sending claims adjusters to the scene. Drones can be used to assist in firefighting, locate criminal suspects, and assess an accident scene before emergency vehicles arrive. Drones performed a light show for Lady Gaga’s halftime show at the Super Bowl. When the Green Bay Packers hosted the Raiders at Lambeau Field, a drone flew around the stadium—an incident now under federal investigation.
Amazon’s tests of drone delivery in Britain, and Domino’s pizza deliveries in New Zealand, are no accident. With growing popularity of drones for business and recreational purposes, U.S. law is barely keeping up with these fast-moving devices. The FAA, which governs the use of United States airspace, has been slow to respond to the explosion of drone usage. As drone usage has surged, so has the frequency of dangerous incidents—in November 2016, a Canadian airplane in the skies above Toronto had to use evasive maneuvers to avoid a drone, injuring several crew members. In April 2016, a British Airways plane collided with a drone while landing at London’s Heathrow Airport. The FAA indicates 3.5 near misses between drones and aircraft occur every day in U.S. airspace alone. The FAA estimates that at least 600,000 commercial drones will be operating in the U.S. in 2017, due to new safety rules opening the skies to them. The FAA rules governing small commercial drones are designed to protect safety without stifling innovation.
In August 2016, the FAA announced final rules regulating commercial drone usage after 5 years of lobbying by drone makers and tech companies. The new commercial drone rules allow businesses to use drones weighing less than 55 pounds if they are: (1) operated by a pilot, at least 16 years old, who has passed a written test (relaxing the prior rule that required the operator to have a commercial pilot’s license); (2) flown below 400 feet, during the day, and at least 5 miles away from airports; (4) flown under 100 mph; (5) not flown over people; and (6) always in the operator’s line of sight.
These rules mean that Amazon, Domino’s, Google and other companies pushing for drone package delivery, may have to wait a little longer to take to the skies. In response to commercial operators’ complaints about the new rules, the FAA created a system granting exemptions to some of the rules for companies that show they can operate drones safely. On the first day the rules went into effect, the FAA granted 76 exemptions, mostly to companies that fly drones at night. The FAA has not ruled out amending its rules once it feels a safe system for drone deliveries has been established. Flirtey, along with others, is working with the FAA to turn that into reality.
Individual states, not the FAA, regulate issues of privacy and trespass related to drones. Specific Wisconsin laws protect a person’s privacy from drone users who have intent to photograph or observe an individual who has a reasonable expectation of privacy (Wis. Stat. §942.10). Other Wisconsin laws prohibit flying drones over correctional facilities to avoid delivery of contraband, putting weapons on drones, or flying drones within Wisconsin State or National Parks. Some municipalities have enacted local ordinances. Green Bay prohibits drone operation below 400 feet within the boundaries of a special event, including the farmers’ market, the annual fireworks’ display, the Art street celebration, marathons and Packer games. Exceptions to the ordinance are made for law enforcement agencies. Traditional trespass laws require the physical presence on another person’s property. Unmanned drones have no person on board, but one argument for enforcing trespass laws is that the drone is merely an extension of the operator. Wisconsin courts have yet to hear and decide this question.
What are the rules for recreational operators flying drones received under the Christmas tree? In January 2016, the FAA issued separates rules for the use of recreational drones, or “unmanned aircraft that [are] capable of sustained flight in the atmosphere, flown within visual line of sight of the person operating the aircraft, and flown only for hobby or recreational purposes.” (FAA, Unmanned Aircraft Systems FAQ’s, question 1). This sweeping definition covers owners of not just recreational drones, but also remotely controlled model airplanes and helicopters. Recreational drone owners must register with the FAA before operating drones outside. You can register through the FAA website, registermyuas.faa.gov. Only U.S citizens at least 13 years old can register by paying $5.00 for a 3-year registration. Failure to register can subject a violator to a fine of up to $27,500 and a criminal penalty of up to 3 years in prison. Registration is required for drones weighing between 0.55 and 55 pounds, which encompasses the majority of recreational drones available. The owner receives a registration number, which must be marked on all of that owner’s drones. Like commercial drone users, recreational users are subject to state privacy and trespass laws.
Industry watchers predict that, once regulators get comfortable with drone deliveries being reliable and safe, and as commercial and recreational usage surges, the FAA will permit drone “skyways.” NASA is developing a drone-tracking system to keep drones from encroaching upon restricted airspace, even allowing the FAA to take control temporarily and fly straying drones back into legal airspace. With continued lobbying by influential companies, like Amazon, it is likely that letters, packages—even a drone for Christmas—eventually will be dropped at our doors by unmanned drones. But if you are hankering right now for a drone-delivered pizza, your best bet is a small town in New Zealand.