So your company wants to internally start using drones for marketing photos, tracking a construction project, capturing visual information on products, etc. There are dozens of reasons that companies all over are looking to use drones these days. But, are your prepared? That doesn’t just mean do you have a drone and someone who knows how to turn it on. We mean are you ready from a legal and liability standpoint? We are going to walk you through some of the unique issues with using drones as a corporations.
First off, there are regulations. The commercial drone rules apply to anyone flying to further a business - even if you had a buddy with a drone who you wanted to snap some photos of your business, this legally falls under a commercial operation (pay or not). So unfortunately, while using a drone seems as simple as going to the store and handing them your credit card, the legal side of it is much more involved than that. There are tons of federal regulations associated with legally flying a drone. In August 2016 the FAA passed CFR 14 Part 107 which REQUIRES anyone flying a drone for a business purpose to have FAA remote pilot certification. This process requires taking a test at a testing center to become a certified remote pilot, but then there are all of the regulations listed under Part 107 that have to be followed. Here are a few basics:
Drones can only be flown during daylight
Flight over people and moving traffic is prohibited
The drone must be flown within line of sight of the pilot at all times
Flights must stay under 400’ above ground level
Any flights in controlled airspace (towered airports like Mitchell, Timmerman, and Waukesha for the Milwaukee area) require authorization from the FAA
The list above is just a piece of what is required to legally operate a drone commercially these days, and the regulations are still changing almost on a yearly basis as legislators try to keep up with the changing technology and demands. So why do you need to follow these laws? We will admit that currently the FAA isn’t staffed to keep tabs on who is or isn’t flying drones legally, however there is a huge litigation and liability factor that brings us to another issue of insurance.
Companies always carry general liability insurance, but GL policies never cover aviation related activities - and drones specifically fall under aviation related activities. If your company has used drones internally and has not sourced out specific drone insurance then you are not covered! The other issue here is the requirement by most insurance policies that the FAA regulations have to be followed in order for you to be covered. If have a claim for a drone crashing into a building and you were found by your insurance company to be in violation of the regulations, then they will not cover your claim. But in most people’s minds it’s just a little drone, so how much damage can it really do? Well, the largest number of claims related to drones are due to battery fires. The LiPo batteries used in drones are actually extremely volatile and a simple battery puncture can result in a very dangerous chemical fire as the battery basically turns into a torch shooting flames (Google it, we aren’t kidding). That could turn a “small crash” into a very dangerous building fire. While this certainly an outlying scenario, drones do fail or have pilot error all of the time, and things like this have happened. Simply searching for drone crashes on Youtube returns countless examples of equipment failures and operator errors that could lead to very dangerous situations. Even when it comes to hiring an outside source for drones, you want to make sure you are hiring someone who is following regulations and is insured because you don’t want to be held liable as the one who hired them if there is some sort of incident. Ask for an FAA certification card and a certificate of insurance.
Another issue is having personnel to fly and operate a drone. We are frequently asked if it is easy to fly a drone, and it certainly is easy to get a drone into the air these days. What is not easy is dealing with unknown situations that arise. GPS failure, compass errors, IMU errors, camera problems, battery voltage issues, etc are all issue that pop up with drones and the more experienced an operator is, the more easily they can navigate these issues without crashing. Then there is all of the knowledge that photographers and videographers learn over time with lots of hours of experience that get the best images and don’t rely on “auto” modes on the drone. While there are certainly many talented drone operators out there, simply grabbing an intern to go fly a drone may not get you the high quality shots you were after.
There are also now criminal penalties involved with flying drones. As of October 2018 it is illegal according to federal law to fly a drone in controlled airspace without authorization whether you are a hobbyist or commercial operator. While today you can still get away with flying “under the radar” of everything we mentioned above, Congress and the FAA are working on how to actually track every drone in the air. This will lead to more FAA inspectors showing up where people are flying, and possibly even them being aware of who is flying legally or illegally based on the user and location data that they will gather. The “wild west” days of drones are coming to an end as more companies like Amazon work with legislators toward using drones for things like automated deliveries. More and more drones will be in the air in the future and the safety of the airspace will end up being managed by unmanned traffic management (UTM) systems, so its best to follow the laws now and stay on top of changes so you don’t get caught by surprise.
Last, when you look at your use case for drones, does it make sense to deal with changing regulations, certification, insurance, and finding someone who can fly the drone? Do you have the resources to manage, edit, and store all of the gathered imagery? When you really analyze your needs does it make sense to operate drones in-house or hire a source that will handle everything and give you a simple link with everything you need? Remember - all of the legal and liability issues apply to every company in America whether you are simply a home inspector looking at roofs, or a multi-million dollar marketing company.
So, once again, are you prepared? If you have a need for drone services, consultation on setting up drones internally, or just have questions about anything please reach out! At MKE Drones we are not just a drone service provider, we are an advocates for drones in Wisconsin and Milwaukee, plus we just love to talk about them with anyone who is curious.