Sunday, March 09, 2014

Drones: Law firms are taking notice

From surveying sugar cane fields in Hawaii to scanning the bottom of the Arctic Ocean for marine mammals, the use of unmanned aircraft systems — more commonly known as drones — is taking off. And law firms are taking notice.

Banking on the fact that drones will become more mainstream in commercial and private use, two major U.S. law firms announced last week that they are starting drone practice groups — Richmond-based LeClairRyan and Atlanta-based McKenna Long & Aldridge.

LeClairRyan’s drone group, based in Annapolis, is led by Tim Adelman and Doug McQueen, a flight instructor and United Airlines pilot, respectively, in addition to being aviation attorneys. McKenna Long’s practice is headed by Mark Dombroff, a partner in the firm’s McLean office and a former in-house lawyer at the Federal Aviation Administration.

The announcements follow recent indications by the FAA that the agency plans to issue proposed rules regulating small civil unmanned aircraft later this year. In 2013, the FAA authorized the first commercial flight by an unmanned aircraft, a research vessel chartered by ConocoPhillips that was launched over the skies of Alaska to scan the sea floor to survey marine mammals and ice before drilling. The FAA estimates there could be as many as 7,500 small commercial drones in use in the United States by 2018.

 “We want to help [companies] shape rulemaking and get a seat at the table, then actually operate in a world they had a hand in creating,” Dombroff said. 

There are thousands of companies building drones and trying to market and sell them, but they are running into hurdles because the federal government has yet to create regulations to govern them, Adelman said.

“They’re they’re having a hard time expanding their business,” said Adelman, who has advised drone manufacturers AirCover and Leptron, and has worked with universities and law enforcement agencies on the legal implications of using drones. “But as we see these new rules come out in next year or two, you’ll see an explosion of manufacturers and end users.”

LeClairRyan and McKenna Long are looking to expand their work representing companies that design, manufacture and operate drones in shaping the upcoming FAA regulations, as well as guiding companies through the FAA certification process. The FAA must certify any aircraft, manned or unmanned, that goes into the sky, and anyone who wants to operate a vehicle has to go through an application process.

The drone practice groups at both firms will not bring in new lawyers, but rather include attorneys already at the firms who specialize in aviation, intellectual property, employment, government contracting and general business law.

“We figured putting it all into a package would be helpful,” Adelman said.

While Amazon’s package-delivery octocopter drone may not become a reality for years, there are many uses for drones in agriculture and real estate that could be on the cusp of becoming more commonplace, he said.

“If someone stole my tractor and it’s on a 1,500-acre farm, if you were to get 20 patrolmen to walk all over the farm, it would take all day,” Adelman said. “I could fly a [drone] in half an hour and scan the area quickly.

“If real estate agents wanted to take a picture of a house, they could pay a pilot and it could cost $500, whereas if I had a [drone], it would cost cents.”

Police and sheriffs departments in Queens Anne’s County, Md.; Arlington, Tex.; Mesa County, Colo.; and Miami-Dade County, Fla., have already started experimenting with unmanned aircraft for fire fighting, photography and other uses. Facebook is reportedly in talks to buy Titan Aerospace, a drone production company that is developing solar-powered atmospheric satellites that could bring Web access to parts of the world with limited Internet connections.

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Surrounded by protypes, Drone America founder Mike Richards, center, talks with Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and local business representatives during a Cabinet Business Visit Day stop, in Reno on Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013. A leading Las Vegas law firm has launched a first-of-its-kind practice in Nevada, focusing on legal issues related to the development and commercial use of drones. 

A leading Las Vegas law firm has launched a first-of-its-kind practice in Nevada, focusing on legal issues related to the development and commercial use of remotely piloted aerial vehicles, or drones. 

Joe Brown and Richard Jost first approached their firm, Fennemore Craig Jones Vargas, about creating the new working group some years ago, but the state’s recent selection as a drone development hot spot made it a priority for the firm, the lawyers said. 

 Jost will lead the Aviation, Aerospace and Autonomous Systems practice at Fennemore Craig Jones Vargas.

Althogh a first in Nevada, the legal practice follows on the heels of Kramer Levin Naftalis &Frankel LLP in New York, which became the nation’s first to offer legal representation for the commercial or private use of drones in December.

Brendan Schulman, special counsel at the New York firm, represents Raphael Pirker, who was fined $10,000 by the Federal Aviation Administration for using a drone in 2011 to shoot a promotional video at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. The case is pending.

The FAA’s selection of Nevada in December as one of six locations for the drone development marks a collaboration of government and business leaders, Brown said.

“We were involved right from the ground floor of this effort with (Nevada),” Brown said. “When the word was out that the FAA was going to have this beauty contest among the states to see where the best sites were. … We saw the opportunity to be the go-to firm.”

Jost agreed, saying it became clear very early in the process that there was a need for legal services in this emerging industry. He said it is also about representing business interests in developing technology, not just litigation.

Spending on unmanned aerial vehicles is expected to total $89 billion in the next 10 years, more than doubling from $5.2 billion to $11.6 billion annually now, according to the Fairfax, Va.-based consulting company the Teal Group Corp.

Jost’s unmanned aircraft systems practice is based in downtown Las Vegas and will involve attorneys from several existing groups, including regulatory, government relations, business and finance, environmental and intellectual property.

The FAA, however, has yet to develop regulations for commercial use of drones. Although the agency allows recreational use of airspace by model aircraft, it prohibits individuals or companies flying them for business purposes.

Jost said model aircraft are limited to operating below 400 feet.

The FAA Modernization and Reform Act, passed by Congress in 2012, requires the agency to integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace by Sept. 30, 2015.

Any discussion about drones sparks a debate over whether their use crosses a line of privacy, a line Jost called “fuzzy at best.”

“Obviously, the courts have struggled with that right now and have said, ‘We are still trying to figure out what a right to privacy really means,’ ” Jost said. “We understand it in the criminal context, unlawful search and seizure, but there are some fairly easy-to-spot lines that you can’t cross.”

Jost said it’s about what negatively affects a person’s right to privacy and if people are willing to put up with it.

“If you think about it, right now in the Valley you can go outside and enjoy your swimming pool in the backyard and you hear the Metro police helicopters go by,” Jost said. “I think most of us assume that when they go by, even if we are in our swimming pools, that it’s OK because we want them to be patrolling in our neighborhoods.”

Jost said when it comes to unmanned aerial vehicles, the question does change the equation.

“Are we all going to be happy if Metro grounds their manned helicopters and puts up 10 times as many unmanned aircraft?” Jost said.

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