Drones, also known as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), have received extensive media coverage over the past few years. Whether the discussions about drones are related to the unmanned aircraft used in military operations or the small quadcopters used by individual enthusiasts, it is evident that drone use is on the rise. As with all new products, this rise in drone use brings with it a host of legal issues manufacturers and operators need to take into account. Though the relevant fields of law are slow to catch up to the technological advancements, manufacturers and operators may still be hit with product liability, aviation and privacy law claims. This blog post will focus primarily on the product liability issues with emphasis on small UAS (sUAS), drones that weigh less than 55 pounds.

An increasing number of commercial sectors are beginning to understand and take advantage of the versatility a drone can provide. Law enforcement agencies have shown strong interest in using drones for surveillance and public safety while other government agencies have found drones useful in fighting fires, search-and-rescue missions or catastrophic events. Construction companies have already begun using drones for mapping sites and monitoring progress, and mining companies have used drones to map the insides of mining tunnels. An American electronic commerce company has an ambitious plan to use drones for shipping, while a logistics company in Germany has already begun trial runs with its delivery drone nicknamed “parcelcopter.” Media companies have also begun testing drones for filming reports and news coverage. The potential commercial applications seem endless as more and more companies find ways to incorporate drones into their businesses due to, among other benefits, the significant savings drones can provide to their operations.

Drone manufacturers and operators need to be cognizant of potential product liability issues that may rise from the operation of drones. A quick search on the Internet will yield plenty of videos showcasing various drone accidents, many of which could lead to personal injury or property damage claims. When presented with such damages, plaintiffs may be eager to file strict product liability suits by citing failure to warn claims or claiming manufacturing or design defects. Manufacturers should take into account the evolving legal framework surrounding the use of drones to meet certain minimum safety requirements in this regard and, ideally, be in a position to show their product goes above and beyond the minimum.

With regard to failure to warn issues, manufacturers need to make sure the drone comes equipped with adequate and appropriate warnings, on the drone and in the accompanying operator manual, specifically warning, for example, against use in close proximity to persons or in rough weather conditions. To mitigate risk in terms of manufacturing and/or design defects, manufacturers should keep up to date on the latest safety designs and manufacturing standards, which if not incorporated in their product may be used against them in a potential products liability lawsuit.

By way of example, certain drone manufacturers have begun incorporating autonomous anti-collision systems in their drones that activate in “lost-link” situations where the connection between the operator and the drone is severed. Such anti-collision systems could avoid scenarios in which the drone spirals out of control and potentially injures a person or property. Other manufacturers have incorporated no-fly zones into their drones that would force the drone to land when flying close to or over certain restricted areas such as airports or government buildings. Other issues to take into account involve the user interface needed to operate the drone; these must be effective and easy to use to reduce the possibility of claiming defective design of the control systems. Plaintiffs might also claim breaches of the implied warranty of merchantability or fitness for purpose in their lawsuits.

As the popularity and availability of drones for commercial and personal use continues to increase and the law struggles to adequately and promptly regulate their use, drone manufacturers and operators need to be cognizant of the constantly evolving legal framework and work toward mitigating risk and liability in the face of potential lawsuits.