It had to happen. With the increased commercial use of drones the lawyers are sitting up and wondering what the noise above is all about. Drones are being used increasingly for everything from surveying crops to photographing houses for estate agents – quite apart from efforts to destroy terrorists in the remotest parts of the planet.
This week two major law firms announced the formation of drone practice groups. The law firms, Richmond-based LeClairRyan and Atlanta-based McKenna Long & Aldridge, are intending to use existing attorneys in their practices rather than bringing in new lawyers. The legal group will include lawyers from a range of existing areas, ranging from intellectual property and aviation to government and business lawyers.
The Washington Post reported that 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.