Drones create commercial excitement and a new area of thin ice in the law

By Coyt Johnston

Advances in technology are constantly changing our world. As the world changes, our business and personal behaviors change to fit these possibilities. And then the laws play catch-up trying to adapt to the new behaviors and ones we anticipate in the future.

The technological advances in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), also known as drones, are creating countless possibilities for people and business. They are also causing those very same headaches for lawmakers trying to govern their use and often missing the mark.

In the Texas Hill Country, officials sent out drones to survey the recent floodwaters. On the Gulf Coast, an oil transportation company uses drones to check their pipelines for leakage or tampering. And in Dallas, forward-thinking photographers employ drones to capture unique wedding footage and advertise new residential communities.

All across the state and the nation, unmanned aircraft are being used for business and by thousands of hobbyists in exciting new ways. The mention of drones may conjure up images of the deadly Predators, but the same technology that the U.S. military uses to combat terrorism is being adapted for home use.

Along with the many uses of drones come legal concerns. “Drone law” is a niche area that has come to fruition only in the past couple of years, as the widespread use of UAVs has roused the attention and often rhetoric of aviation experts, privacy advocates, businesspeople and enthusiasts.

Both Federal and state laws govern various aspects of drone use. Despite recent questions of the Federal Aviation Administration’s authority to govern the commercial use of drones, the FAA maintains that commercial use inside US airspace is prohibited without a permit. FAA rules governing private or hobbyist use may shed some light on commercial use. So far, general hobbyist restrictions apply to drones that weigh less than 55 pounds. They tell owners not to fly above 400 feet or within five miles of an airport. Drones are not to fly at night or around people. And you are required to keep your drone within the line of sight. Clearly, if drones are to reach their full commercial potential, the new rules now being formulated by the FAA must allow more freedom in the air.

While federal rules deal mostly with where you can fly a drone, Texas law is more concerned with how you can use the images captured by a camera mounted on an unmanned craft. The Texas Privacy Act defines both civil and criminal penalties for certain uses, and the Act expressly prohibits using images captured by a drone to be used as evidence in a trial. The Texas Legislature passed these laws in 2013. There is sure to be more attention on this issue in the future, along with court challenges.

Many current laws governing drones seem to be based on fear. There seems to be more emphasis on what you cannot do with a drone than the possibilities. Often laws indicate a misunderstanding of the technology and its capabilities. Furthermore, the entire issue of drones for business or pleasure is a surprisingly new and uncharted legal distinction. The technology is expanding rapidly, and along with new uses undoubtedly will come new laws struggling to adapt.

In this, as in many other areas, change is the one variable everyone can expect.