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Retail Deliveries by Drones Raise Legal Concerns

Amazon Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos dropped a bombshell announcement during an interview with CBS’ 60 Minutes, saying that the retail giant is working toward delivering as much as 86% of its packages (those weighing five pounds or less) via unmanned aircraft commonly known as drones.

As Bezos and his team mull the bottom-line benefits of the move, the Federal Aviation Administration is also considering how to regulate domestic drones, something Amazon would be dependent on if it ever moved forward with its plans.

“I know it can’t be before 2015, because that’s the earliest we could get the rules from the FAA," Bezos said during the interview. "My guess is … that’s probably a little optimistic. But could it be, you know, four, five years? I think so. It will work, and it will happen, and it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Matthew T. Henshon, of Henshon Klein LLP in Boston is an expert in aviation law, and he said there will be some significant legal hurdles that will need to be addressed before drone technology can be practically applied to the domestic retail sector.

“FAA Regulations currently only allow ‘hobbyists,’ – in other words, non-commercial users—to use UAVs or drones, under the same rules that apply to model aircraft,” he said. “These rules, written in 1981, basically state that the user must keep the drone under 400 feet [and] must notify an airport if within three miles.”

He said, though, the FAA is working on drafting more comprehensive regulations, per Congressional instruction, specifically tailored to drones. The work is scheduled to be done by 2015, right around when Amazon plans to unveil its technology. However, Henshon said some feel the November “roadmap” update issued by the FAA is evidence they may be behind schedule.

He also said there are a lot of privacy issues that need to be addressed, especially regarding what agencies will regulate privacy concerns associated with the use of drones. And, while the FAA is still working on comprehensive regulations, drones are used by some law enforcement agencies and are subjected to some local ordinances, Henshon said.

Drones have also been used abroad for military purposes for years, as well. Mesa County, Colorado uses drones for surveillance and this fall put them to work during their recent flood evacuation. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, prohibited the flights, however, once it became involved in the situation.

Further, some places, like Charlottesville, Virginia, have passed a local ordinance banning the use of drones altogether. On the other end of the spectrum, Deer Trail, Colorado, is considering permitting the hunting of drones flying under 1,000 feet, he said.

“It is assumed that the FAA, when its regulations [are issued], will supersede any local regulations … However, the FAA may allow state or local regulation in certain instances,” Henshon said. In addition, it is unclear what law enforcement agencies will be responsible for crimes involving the drones, like the stealing or hacking of them.

“Right now, it’s probably an exclusively local law enforcement issue,” he said. “Presumably the forthcoming FAA regulations may ‘federalize’ such crimes, much like high-jacking a plane is a federal crime.”

The Aircraft Piracy Act from 1961, U.S.C.A. § 32, covers such acts, Henshon said. “However, there could still be local jurisdiction over the crimes as well—just like there would be local charges in a high-jacking—like, for instance, destruction of property [and] kidnapping.”

A copy of the Integration of Civil Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) in the National Airspace System (NAS) Roadmap can be found here.

Dan Sabbatino is an award winning journalist whose accolades include a New York Press Association award for a series of articles he wrote dealing with a small upstate town’s battle over the implications of letting a “big-box” retailer locate within its borders. He has worked as a reporter and editor since 2007 primarily covering state and local politics for a number of Capital Region publications, including The Legislative Gazette.

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