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The Exploding Use of Drones

The potential for drones, i.e., unmanned aircraft systems (“UAS”), is tremendous.  After years of being associated with military operations, the civilian UAS market is expected to dramatically expand in the United States in the next ten years.  A multitude of conceivable applications for UAS — including mapping, weather forecasting, law enforcement, news gathering, real estate, photography, agriculture, and freight transport — promises to change the way business is done across a diverse array of industries and companies.

By any measure, the UAS market is significant and growing. Optimistic analysts project that annual U.S. civilian spending on UAS will grow from $1.15 billion in 2015 to $4 billion in 2020 and $5.11 billion in 2025.   Less sanguine analysts place the annual worldwide civilian UAS market between $498 million and $1 billion  by 2020.  The FAA predicts that UAS will be the “most dynamic growth sector within aviation industry.”

However, many legal and regulatory obstacles remain before drones can be widely used in our national airspace.  Current federal law prohibits UAS in most circumstances with exceptions for test flights and government aircraft that secure special permission from the FAA.

This will change because Congress delegated to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) the task of integrating UAS in to the National Airspace System by September 2015.  Quite apart from the regulatory framework developed by the FAA, numerous legal issues will arise ranging from takings and property torts relating to flights over private property to privacy issues.  State tort laws will be heavily involved.

Notwithstanding these legal and regulatory challenges to widespread UAS usage, there is great momentum and potential for this new form of aviation.  Businesses should focus on how they can benefit from the use of drones.  Once they have done so, they should navigate the legal and regulatory thicket.  The rewards could be substantial.

© 2020 Covington & Burling LLPNational Law Review, Volume IV, Number 141


About this Author

Jack Schenendorf, Regulatory and public policy lawyer, Covington
Of Counsel

Jack Schenendorf’s practice concentrates on transportation and legislation with a particular focus on legislative strategy, legislative procedure, and the federal budget process.  He recently served as Vice Chair of the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission.

For nearly 25 years, Mr. Schenendorf served on the staff of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure of the U.S. House of Representatives.  He was Chief of Staff from 1995 to 2001.  In BNA's Daily Report for Executives, Mr. Schenendorf was described "as one of the most...