When any new technology enters the market, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) seeks to determine the proper balance between this innovation and aviation safety. Today’s interesting DWI topic involves the question of whether a drone operator can be charged with operating a drone while under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs.
This topic is particularly salient because, since their inception, drone sales have been impressive and continue at a record pace.
FAA Rules Governing Small Unmanned Aircraft/Drones
In June 2016, the FAA enacted its Small Unmanned Aircraft (UA) Rule (14 CFR Part 107) that regulates the use and operation of small UAs which are not considered remote-control model aircraft. Informally called “drones,” these small UAs are used for recreational and business purposes such as aerial photography, research, search-and-rescue, utilities inspections, construction surveys, and agricultural monitoring, for example. Even more recently, companies such as Google, Walmart, and Amazon have been testing drones for deliveries, and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International projects as many as 70,000 new jobs and $13.6 billion will enter the market within three years of UAs being given full access to the friendly skies.
With the advent and increased use of UAs, the FAA has sought to ensure that the U.S. maintains its standing as the world’s safest airspace despite its complexity. Of primary concern is the potential that a drone may collide with an aircraft, causing significant problems including aircraft crashes.
This rule marks the FAA’s first efforts to devise a comprehensive plan to keep the skies safe as drones are increasingly sharing airspace with commercial aircraft. This preliminary rule requires additional study regarding how best to approach UA use in congested skies; however, the FAA does not have any set time frame for when finalization may occur.
UA hobbyists do have similar guidelines; however, Congress exempted them from any formal rules.
While there are regulations regarding UAs, there is no real method to enforce rules. Whereas the FAA has fined drone operators for recklessness, this number is relatively small, and concerns loom large regarding the inherent conflict between federal and state governments regarding the multitude of drone laws. Currently, 31 states have adopted legislation addressing such issues as search warrants to operate drones for surveillance, misusing drones, operating drones over private property, drone speed limits, proper operating times, airspace ceilings, privacy concerns, and reckless flying.
Amidst all of the FAA’s rule-making, questions remain as to whether one can be charged with a driving under the influence while operating a drone. Awareness of the potential for a drone DUI/DWI—or Flying under the Influence (FUI)—stemmed from a January 2015 incident in which a Department of Defense staffer reported crashing his personal drone on the White House lawn while he was driving with friends.
One oft-asked question is whether drones would, in fact, be addressed under such legislation. After all, a person cannot be charged with a DUI/DWI for driving a remote-controlled car because that car is not considered to be a motor vehicle for transportation purposes. Since drones are also not used for human transportation, some argue that this is the same thing. However, given the potential problems that can arise when a drone occupies airspace with other, legitimate aircraft, the potential for accidents is, indeed, higher. Granted, if remote-controlled cars shared public street lanes with regular vehicles then one may adopt a different view.
While not specifically addressed in the FAA’s rules, flying one’s drone while intoxicated is likely to fall under the reckless and/or careless operation of a UA with potentially stringent penalties because of the heightened potential for serious damage involved with drones. The FAA does address operating an airplane while intoxicated, and such carries harsh, federally mandated penalties including potential prison time. Additional penalties—which may soon be applied to drone operators and other non-authorized aircrafts—may subject someone to as many as twenty years in prison and/or $25,000 in fines.