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April 27, 2017

Invasion of the drones and drone risks

Despite the possibilities and popularity of drones, they come with great risks. Insurance coverage will always be subject to the full terms and conditions of your policy and applicable laws.

Beth DeWalt

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As the use of Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS), more commonly known as drones, expands for business and pleasure, they are becoming a more common sight. Amazon recently completed its first successful demonstration delivery using a drone. Some insurance companies use drones to improve safety and timeliness of claims inspections. There are even flight clubs around the country where hobby drone pilots get together to fly their drones.

While the use of drones in business and the insurance industry is expanding, hobby and recreational use is by far the most popular reason drones are being purchased. They continue to be one of the hottest gift items, with prices for hobby drones starting at less than $100 and can escalating into the thousands.

Despite the possibilities and popularity of drones, they come with great risks that have the potential of being very costly. Firefighters have struggled with drones interfering with aerial firefighting during forest fires and firefighter transport, causing enough concern to stall firefighting operations. Recently, a drone crashed into the roof of Seattle’s Space Needle as workers prepared for the city’s New Year’s Eve fireworks display. Paparazzi have used drones to see into celebrities’ backyards or to gain access to celebrity weddings and take photos. These are just a few examples of safety, security, and privacy risks that have led federal and local governments to enact regulations for these devices that every drone pilot must know and follow.

FAA drone regulations

If you are flying your drone for hobby or recreational use, the FAA has implemented these operating rules, which you should abide by:

  • All drones weighing more than 0.55 pounds must be registered with the FAA.

  • You must be at least 13 years old to register a drone. If the owner is younger than 13 years old, someone meeting the age requirement must register the drone for them.

  • You must label your drone with your registration number.

  • You must notify the airport and air traffic control tower before flying within five miles of an airport.

  • Drones must always yield right of way to manned aircraft.

  • The operator must always keep the drone in sight. 

Note: The FAA does not have a recommended age requirement for pilots flying a drone as a hobby. However, to fly a drone for work, you must have a Remote Pilot Airman Certificate, which requires the pilot to be at least 16 years old.

Drone safety

While you don’t need permission from the FAA to fly a drone as a hobby or for recreational use, it is always important to fly safely. As a rule of thumb, the FAA recommends that you abide by the following safety precautions whenever you fly a drone:

  • Fly at or below 400 feet and stay away from surrounding obstacles.

  • Keep your drone within sight.

  • Never fly near other aircraft, especially near airports.

  • Never fly over groups of people.

  • Never fly over stadiums or sports events.

  • Never fly near emergency response efforts such as fires.

  • Never fly under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

  • Understand airspace restrictions and requirements.

The FAA has developed a free mobile app called B4UFLY that will verify your location and let you know if there are restrictions or special requirements in the area. You can expect to find airspace restrictions near airports, active wildfires, or “No Drone Zones” at sporting event venues and other restricted areas such as military bases and prisons.

Drones and privacy considerations    

Most drones are equipped with cameras to take pictures or record video and may fly unnoticed next to a person or property. While flying a drone around your property may be a fun afternoon activity, being respectful of your neighbors’ expectation of privacy is more than a courtesy – it is a matter of law.

Invasion of privacy laws are in place to protect the public in private spaces. Some states also have stalking statutes in place that may apply directly or indirectly to drones. A California statute, for example, addresses instances of paparazzi stalking celebrities. The statute prohibits anyone from intentionally following, alarming, placing under surveillance, or harassing another individual to cause fear for their safety or emotional distress.

In addition, many states have passed new invasion of privacy laws directed specifically at drones. According to a new Florida law, “a person is presumed to have a reasonable expectation of privacy on his or her privately owned real property if he or she is not observable by persons located at ground level in a place where they have a legal right to be, regardless of whether he or she is observable from the air with the use of a drone.”

Accidents happen. Do I need personal drone insurance?

Even if you are flying your drone close to home and at low altitudes, an unexpected crash has the potential to injure a bystander, damage property, or cause an automobile accident. The FAA requires reporting of drone accidents causing more than $500 of property damage or serious injury to a person. Many insurers have yet to have claim cases related to drones and this subject remains widely untested. Depending on the specific circumstances, it is possible that your homeowners insurance may respond if you are liable for damages. Alternatively, you may discover that in fact your homeowners policy does not provide liability coverage for your situation.

Insurance coverage will always be subject to the full terms and conditions of your policy and applicable laws. Reviewing policy terms and exclusions is a good place to start when considering if you need other insurance. If you are considering purchasing a drone, talk with your trusted insurance advisor to determine if additional coverage is needed to protect you and your family from potential risks.