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.
“It’s a very exciting frontier,” Dombroff said.