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Companies Should Exercise Due Diligence Prior To Hiring Third-Party Drone Services, says Aviation Attorney

Benefits Of Using Third-Party Services Can Be Tremendous, But Hired Pilots Need To Be Licensed, Insured–And Sticklers About FAA rules

Third-party drone companies are helping US businesses with filming, testing, spraying and much more. But before hiring someone to fly a drone on your behalf, it is wise to carefully consider the regulatory and risk-management questions that can arise as a result of the relationship, writes veteran LeClairRyan aviation attorney Mark A. Dombroff in a new post at CorporateComplianceInsights.com.

Mark Dombroff
Mark Dombroff

“Whenever drones are flown for commercial purposes—everything from wedding photography to inspection of industrial smokestacks—their use is subject to Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations,” writes Dombroff, a shareholder in the national law firm’s Alexandria office and co-leader of its aviation industry practice. “That means that companies, when they hire drone-operating vendors, need to carefully scrutinize those vendors’ compliance status.”

In the post (“Lessons in Liability: Drones 101”), Dombroff discusses some of the risks in this area and offers four specific tips to help companies shield themselves from liability.

In today’s economy, he writes, companies are increasingly using drones for a wide range of purposes, such as inspecting gas pipelines, taking real estate photographs or “delivering” products as part of marketing campaigns. Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) even promise to improve safety in some circumstances. “What would you rather do,” the attorney writes, “climb a 200-foot tower or use a drone to conduct that inspection?”

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Nonetheless, the prospect of UAS occasionally being involved in accidents is quite real, Dombroff notes. He points to three recent accidents in which drones were involved in collisions (with a U.S. Army Black Hawk Helicopter, fans sitting in the upper deck at a baseball stadium and a plane on its approach to an airport in Quebec).

The attorney also cites hypothetical “nightmare scenarios” involving lack of compliance on the part of drone pilots hired by a company. “A utility unknowingly hires an unlicensed, inexperienced drone operator to inspect some power lines,” he writes. “After the pilot hits a line and causes the drone to careen onto a nearby highway, a deadly traffic accident ensues. Could the utility be sued? Absolutely.”

Before hiring a vendor for drone-related services, Dombroff advises, companies should consider taking the following steps:

  • Confirm and get in writing that only federally tested and licensed pilots will operate drones on behalf of your company; as part of this due diligence, be sure to check the certificates of all pilots who will be conducting flights.
  • Be sure that the third-party vendor is properly insured to cover drone operation. This is not a given. Insurers often consider aviation a special risk category that requires either a separate policy or an endorsement that provides coverage for drones as an addition to an existing policy.
  • Consider requiring the vendor to add your company to its insurance policy as an additional insured, a standard risk-management practice across American business.
  • Understand the basic rules/guidelines pertaining to drone operation under federal regulations, so that you can keep your vendors honest.

In the conclusion to the piece, Dombroff, an avid drone pilot himself, reiterates his belief in the benefits of the technology, but also underscores the importance of following the rules. “U.S. aviation already has an incredible track record on safety,” he writes. “I believe our system will successfully integrate drones into its existing safety/compliance methodologies in relatively short order. Nonetheless, companies need to take prudent steps to protect themselves from any potential liability that could accrue when drones take to the skies on their behalf.”

AUTHOR: As a trusted advisor, LeClairRyan provides business counsel and client representation in corporate law and litigation. In this role, the firm applies its knowledge, insight and skill to help clients achieve their business objectives while managing and minimizing their legal risks, difficulties and expenses.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors, and do not necessarily represent official policy or position of AIthority.

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