Flying Under the Radar: Low-Altitude Local Drone Use and the Reentry of Property Rights

By: Kenneth Maher

The characteristics and capabilities of civilian drones have proliferated in recent years, giving rise to a burgeoning industry. The popular media and academic literature have predominantly focused on privacy concerns, devoting considerably less attention to the regulatory challenges created by the new technology. Congress instructed the FAA to integrate drones into the National Airspace System in 2012, but rulemaking delays and a moratorium on commercial uses hampered the industry and withheld benefits from the public.

Final regulations are now in place, but the new rules revive legal uncertainty over the constitutional limits of federal authority and the ambiguous vertical bounds of private property rights. Low-altitude local drone use is one of the most promising aspects of the technology, and lies at the outer edge of federal authority. Much of the current debate gets key questions exactly backwards. Under current Supreme Court precedent, the proper legal question is not whether federal airspace authority can extend lower to govern virtually all drone use, but whether drone use pushes private property rights in airspace higher, limiting federal authority. Therefore, this Issue Brief joins the scholarly criticism of FAA efforts to date and calls for a greater focus on clear property rights.

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Cite: 15 Duke L. & Tech. Rev. 102

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