Drone Legislation

March 30, 2015

BYU Law's chapter of the Federalist Society welcomed Professor Gregory S. McNeal from Pepperdine School of Law. He spoke on the state of drone legislation. Professor Clark Asay from BYU Law provided comment on Professor McNeal's remarks.

Professor McNeal began by identifying types of drones, mainly those used by the military, those used by hobbyists, and those used for commercial purposes. Commercial use drones were the focus of the remarks in light of current regulations and those that will be applied in the coming years.

The drone craze coincided with the advent of smartphones because they use the same technology, McNeal recounted. “This is the future that people see,” he said. “It means that we can take the person out of the loop in parts of the equation, or not require large helicopters or aircraft filled with fuel to do all aerial operations.”

McNeal said, “What's interesting about this is that the technology is so accessible, the barriers to entry so low, that tons of innovation is happening. We're freeing up the minds of people working in their garages to find new designs for the aircraft, create new apps, new software applications, and sensors to do things that might not have been done at all.”

Current regulations state: “Any devices capable of flight are subject to regulation by the FAA.” A recent case held this definition to be absurd, but the National Transportation Safety Board upheld the broad definition. Because the definition is so broad, most people cannot cite a clear definition of a drone. “It's a matter of unpacking the terminology,” McNeal said. “It's a general category, and we have to pull back a layer. But policymakers really don't understand the technical capabilities and so they're creating law and policy based on worse-case scenarios.”

Professor Asay added his comment, suggesting two areas of concern for light limitations on drone regulations. The first is that big companies, major players such as Amazon and Google, will come to dominate the freedom of drones, much as major players have done with the Internet. Similarly, the second concern is that with lack of regulation, the government may contract those major players to do what the government cannot: collecting private information.

In answering questions from the audience, Professor McNeal nodded toward humanitarian uses for drones such as first response units, lifeguard services, and other quick-response mechanisms. The future of drone use lies with the government in amending policies regarding drone use in the near future.