Over the last several years, drones have rapidly grown in popularity. From quick deliveries during rush hour to reaching an otherwise inaccessible military base, drones are proving to be extremely advantageous where humans are either unable to reach an area or are unable to perform specific tasks in a timely and efficient manner.
Increasing productivity and work efficiency, decreasing workload and production costs, refining service and customer relations, improving accuracy, and resolving security issues on a large scale are a few of the top uses drones offer industries globally. This is why they are being integrated worldwide, especially in the military, commercial, personal, and future technology sectors.
Indeed, according to statistics provided by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), as many as 30,000 commercial drones are expected to be in use by 2020 and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International estimates that the use of drones will create close to 100,000 jobs and have an $82 billion economic impact within 10 years.
As is the case with any new technology, however, there are risks associated with the use of drones which leads many to question how liability will be determined when damages occur.
In the case of defective drones that cause harm such as personal injuries or property damage, product liability law will govern. Generally speaking, product liability law is a creature of state, common and statutory law and the law can differ from state to state. Generally, product liability theories result in strict liability, meaning that a tortfeasor — for example, a drone manufacturer — would be strictly liable for injuries caused by a defect in a drone, even without proof of fault.
Strict liability claims generally fall into three basic categories – design defect, which is a flaw in the design that makes the product unreasonably dangerous; manufacturing defect, which is some error in the manufacturing process that causes the product to depart from the intended design making it unreasonably dangerous; and failure to warn which is the concept that the manufacturer was aware of some issue or unreasonably dangerous aspect of the product and failed to pass on that knowledge either entirely or adequately to the end user.
Being that drones may comprise thousands of parts, from actuators to cameras to communication systems, any of the manufacturers of each individual part could be found liable under these strict liability theories if a malfunctioning part caused a drone accident. The company that puts the final product together can also be found liable for injuries if the product assembly results in a dangerous condition. Further, a company that integrates defective parts into a drone, creating a defect that results in an accident, could also be liable for any resulting injuries or damage.
In February of 2015, the FAA issued regulations for drones weighing less than 55 pounds that establish minimum rules and standards for operating small drones for commercial or non-recreational purposes. Notably, missing from the regulations, however, are safety standards that address the risks posed by the use of such drones. As the use of drones becomes more widespread, the FAA will need to proactively address such concerns around drones and take steps to continue to ensure the public’s safety.
In the meantime, individual states should retain their longstanding sovereign authority to safeguard their citizens against drone-related accidents by creating clearly defined standards and laws for those who choose to make use of such technology.