Drones becoming the new frontier in aviation liability law

They go by different names: unmanned aerial vehicles and drones. Increasingly they are taking on all manner of shapes, from conventional airframes, to helicopters, to hybrids; between the two, with some hardly recognizable as aircraft. Once the province of the military and law enforcement, drones are increasingly making headway into commercial uses and even into the hands of private enthusiasts.

The next leap in aviation technology may indeed take the form of aircraft that have no passengers. Indeed, the revolution may already be well underway. And that has some people concerned at the prospect of increases in the risks of accidents as the skies become more congested with pilotless aircraft.

The main occurrences of drone crashes so far have been uncontrolled contact with objects, buildings and, sometimes, with people on the ground.

Last year, for example, a police drone being operated by the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office crashed into Lake Conroe. But more alarmingly, aircraft pilots are reporting more, and closer encounters with drones in the air, some narrowly avoiding mid-air collisions. One such incident took place in 2012 near Houston when a drone came to within 100 feet of an aircraft, according to the pilot who observed it.

The FAA is under increasing pressure to draw up rules for commercial and private operators of drones, but even under existing regulations, many such operators pay them little heed. It seems almost inevitable that at some point a Texas court will be faced with a lawsuit arising out of a mid-air crash involving a drone.

When that happens, although the technology involved in the accident may be cutting-edge, the time-tested legal principles of negligence or recklessness will still apply. Texas law firms that handle cases involving aviation accidents will likely find their services and expertise in even more demand.

Source: Houston Chronicle, “Drone revolution draws near, but big obstacles remain,” Scott Mayerowitz, Jan. 10, 2015

Secondary source: Washington Post, “Close Encounters on Rise As Small Drones Gaining Popularity,” Craig Whitlock, June 23, 2014

Tertiary source: Houston Chronicle, “$250K police drone crashes into Lake Conroe,” Heather Alexander, April 30, 2014