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LOWRY: Privacy, liability of drones in the U.S.

Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, have gone mainstream in this country. In fact, there’s a pretty good chance your neighbor received one as a Christmas gift.

Amazon and similar companies are developing plans to use drones to deliver packages to our front doors. The federal government is already using drones to document the aftermath of natural disasters such as tornadoes, wildfires and floods.

By any measure, 2015 marked a major expansion in recreational drone ownership. The Consumer Technology Association estimates total U.S. sales exceeded 700,000 units last year, marking a 63 percent increase from 2014.

In December, drones were one of the hottest holiday gifts. Model types range from lightweight hobby models to heavy-duty versions outfitted with high-res video cameras.

In response to the growing popularity of drones, Georgia legislators are considering a bill that would amend a portion of an existing law focusing on invasions of privacy. The bill would prohibit capturing certain images by unmanned aircraft, including drones, and would ban the possession, disclosure or distribution of improperly captured images.

Violations would be subject to penalties.

The Federal Aviation Administration has estimated more than 30,000 private unmanned vehicles will be competing for U.S. airspace by 2030. However, as drones become increasingly “mainstream,” they raise serious issues regarding safety, liability and privacy.

For example, unmanned drones can pose a serious threat to commercial aviation if they encroach on commercial airspace, potentially causing a crash. As a result, federal law restricts drone usage around airports, military bases and stadiums hosting major sporting events.

Drones also pose a significant danger to residents on the ground, as they can cause major damage when they crash. Standard liability coverage, which is part of a typical homeowner’s or renter’s insurance policy, may cover damage or injury resulting from a drone falling on an unsuspecting neighbor who is mowing his lawn or crashing into the roof of a nearby house. However, some policies include an aviation exclusion affecting recreational drones, which means coverage is not guaranteed. Be sure to check your policy and consult with your insurance agent to determine your coverage.

In addition to liability issues, drones have raised privacy concerns as well. In recent years, these devices have been used to spy on sunbathers and to peek into private homes.

In 1946, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in U.S. v. Causby determined that homeowner property rights extend only to 83 feet above the ground. As a result, if drones stay above that height, they are arguably not considered to be trespassing.

Regulations surrounding drones are changing quickly. As of Dec. 21, 2015, anyone who owns a small unmanned aircraft weighing more than 0.55 pounds must register with the FAA Unmanned Aircraft System registry before they fly their drone outdoors.

Drone owners must be 13 or older and must be a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident. Individuals who do not register their drones may face civil and criminal penalties.

Drone ownership comes with responsibility. As with cars, this high-tech device can injure pedestrians and damage property. If you or a loved one are injured by a drone, be sure to consult an attorney who specializes in liability claims. You may be entitled to compensation for your damages.

 

Stephen G. Lowry is a partner with the law firm of Harris Penn Lowry LLP who has handled numerous liability claims. He can be reached at steve@hpllegal.com or 912-651-9967.

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