Lack of Federal Regulations May Place Heightened Burden on Drone Manufacturers to Warn Users About Dangers of Interfering with Aircraft

Copyright ALR Photography 2014

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently reported that pilot reports of unmanned aircraft, or “drones”, have increased from 238 sightings in 2014, to more than 650 as of August 9, 2015. According to the FAA, there have been over 250 reports of drones flying at altitudes of up to 10,000 feet in June and July alone. The FAA statement is part of a push by the FAA to increase awareness that operating drones around airplanes, helicopters, and airports, is dangerous and illegal.

News reports regarding drones interfering with manned aircraft are becoming more common. There have been recent reports of unmanned drones near Newark Liberty International Airport, New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, in addition to drones interfering with aircraft fighting wildfires in California. This increase in incidents involving drones has spurred calls for the FAA to tighten regulations on the use of drones, particularly those that qualify as “hobby” or recreational model aircraft. Currently, the FAA regulations limit recreational drones from flying over 400 feet, and prohibit operation within five miles of an airport. However, the recent reports indicate that drone users are not complying with the FAA regulations. Moreover, legislators are calling for new laws to override a 2012 exemption, which blocked regulation of drones flown for recreational purposes, including proposed legislation and regulations requiring the integration of software, which would limit where drones can fly.

The current lack of regulations, along with the perceived (and real) delays in what are seen to be necessary changes effected through the regulatory process may shift some of the burden to warn drone users about the potential dangers of flying too close to aircraft and airports to the companies who manufacture drones. James H. Williams, a former manager of the FAA’s drone integration office, was recently quoted in a Washington Post article saying  it is important that “drone manufacturers step up and do more than they are” to educate their customers of the dangers.

While these current issues are specific to drones, it is clear that manufacturers of new and emerging technologies, along with their legal counsel, face challenges in determining the extent of their duty to warn regarding the safe use of their products in a market where the varying uses of products is expanding as fast as the technology itself. The exploding popularity of drones, and resulting changes in both the regulatory and product liability landscape, should provide a measure of guidance to manufacturers of emerging technology going forward as to what new and prospective duties may be placed upon them to warn consumers about safe and effective ways to use their products.

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