Drones in commerce offer new legal challenges

  • Article by: DAVID PHELPS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 9, 2014 - 2:00 PM

With regulations still up in the air, businesses are unsure of what they can do with the new technology.


Eden Prairie attorney Donald Chance Mark heads a new division looking at legal issues regarding the use of drones by the general public.

Photo: GLEN STUBBE • gstubbe@startribune.com,

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Americans seem to be captivated by drones and the myriad uses of the aerial technology officially known as “unmanned aircraft systems’’ or UAS.

A recent story in the New York Times highlighted the growing popularity of drone-generated wedding photos, for instance. And at FarmFest in Morton, Minn., last week, seminars were offered for farmers to learn how drones could help them plant, tend and harvest their crops.

The possibilities of drone technology are seemingly endless and so are the business opportunities, from agriculture to real estate to movie production.

Last month, the Eden Prairie-based law firm of Fafinski Mark & Johnson announced the creation of a UAS practice group of nine attorneys led by Donald Chance Mark Jr., an attorney with 40 years of aviation law under his belt.

Mark sat down with the Star Tribune last week and talked about the future of drones and the legal issues complicating their use.

Q: Why did your firm decided to launch a special UAS practice group?

A: I’ve been watching this technology for a long time. Over the years there’s been a lot of technology in the civilian environment that started in the military — computers, for instance, and jet engines. After [the use of drones] in Afghanistan it became clear the use of drones would come to the civilian side because there was so much potential for peacetime use. Some people contacted us and said they would like to use them for agriculture, real estate, photography. So we’ve been advising them on what they can and cannot do; mostly what they can’t do. Our firm has an aviation background and a UAS practice just seemed natural.

Q: This drone phenomenon really took off after Amazon’s desire to deliver packages with airborne devices was featured on “60 Minutes.”

A: The “60 Minutes” piece really put a focus on it. It’s been around for awhile. Real estate and agriculture figured it out a while ago and Japan has been using it for agriculture for 15 years. I watched the “60 Minutes” piece and looked at the potential for disaster — what if a package was dropped or stolen?

Q: When will the FAA have regulations in place for commercial use of drones?

A: The FAA was supposed to have rules in place by September of 2015. It’s pretty clear that isn’t going to happen. The Department of Commerce has some regulations now for limited use of drones. The FAA wants to make sure there is a balance between free enterprise and the issues of privacy and safety. We’ve already seen drones used near airports and that’s a huge issue. The potential for disaster is large.

Currently the FAA can issue certificates of authority, but those have been issued mainly to law enforcement and to research facilities. Otherwise the only commercial use that I’m aware of is on a pipeline in Alaska. What if a drone is flying over a school or a hospital and it loses control and crashes? There are all kinds of potential for disaster and that’s why there needs to be regulations. The FAA says if we allow the use of drones without rules, it will mushroom out of control. It’s hard for the FAA to get its arms around all of the potential uses and that’s why it’s taking so long.

Then there’s an issue involving law enforcement. The idea of chasing bad guys and finding lost children makes sense. But on the other side people say we’re becoming a police state and that’s the debate.

Q: But people are using drones now.

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