When a regional triathlon in Australia hired a local drone operator, Warren Abrams, to take aerial photographs of their event, competition organizers of course never expected serious injuries from the UAV. But one of the event’s triathletes is now in stable condition in the hospital after receiving head injuries from a drone collision last week–and the athlete, organizers, and the cinematographer are arguing over whether the athlete was hit by the drone or not. And while this case might seem strange, it raises an important question–who’s responsible when commercial drones hurt people?
Wondering about drone injuries isn’t just idle science fiction fearmongering. In the United States a few months ago a UAV plowed into spectators at a Virginia bull run, causing multiple injuries. Because many business owners see inexpensive UAVs as as cheap and high-tech way to do aerial photography, they are at risk of hiring operators who don’t necessarily know how to fly their drones. There were three to four minor injuries caused by the falling Virginia drone, and UAV enthusiasts identified the operator and posted additional information on an industry bulletin board. Multiple searches found no lawsuits arising from the incident, which indicates the possibility of an out-of-court settlement. For his part, the operator claims his UAV’s battery died in midair.
Incidents like this will become more common in the United States over the next few years; the FAA is widely expected to adopt a framework for unarmed, commercial- and government-operated drones operating in American airspace by the end of 2015. The motion picture industry wants to use UAVs instead of cranes for aerial photography, and industrial agriculture wants aerial sensors monitoring vast swaths of farmland. But when a small UAV falls out of the air and physically hurts bystanders, it’s uncharted legal territory–which is where the lawyers come in. And if there’s any question about whether these injuries will become more common, consider this: One of the larger manufacturers of small quadcopters, DJI, is believed to sell approximately 10,000 units weekly.
Raija Ogden, the triathlete participating in the Endure Batavia Triathlon in Western Australia, told Australian broadcasters ABC that she was struck by the drone, a remotely controlled small aircraft equipped with a video camera, when the operator lost control while filming the event. “Basically we should all just thank our lucky stars that there [were] no injuries to a child or nobody’s eye got taken out,” Ogden said.
Ogden claims she was hit directly by the UAV. The Civil Aviation Safety Authority, an Australian agency which occupies a similar role as the FAA in the States, has launched an investigation. Unlike in America, where commercial drone use falls into a legal gray area, Australia requires operators of commercial UAVs to be certified. According to ABC News, neither Abrams, the local drone operator, nor his business appear to be among the 92 bodies officially certified by the Australian government to use drones for commercial purposes.
But what happens when a UAV filming a sporting event or wedding loses control and hits bystanders? Who is at fault, legally speaking? Fast Company reached out to experts in order to find out–and the consensus is, at the very least, the pilot will have a lot of explaining to do.
Gerald C. Sterns, a California-based aviation and personal injury lawyer, says that common law offered the best precedents. “My analogy and best estimate would be a common law and a judge would find if you bang someone in the head, [such as with] a non-domesticated animal who caused damage to another,” Sterns said. “The owner claimed he wasn’t negligent, the animal got out. The judge said it didn’t matter. If you keep a wild animal you do so at your peril. A judge might view drones causing damage as no different than the non-domesticated animal causing damage.”
Negligence was also broached with Florida aviation attorney Timothy Ravich. He said the operator of a small UAV that loses control and accidentally injures an individual could be named as a defendant in a trial. Though the question of liability is up to a judge and jury, the vehicle’s loss of control could lead to charges of negligence–charges that, depending on the specifics of the situation, could also lead to the UAV’s manufacturer and event organizers being named as defendants as well. In addition, intentionally injuring bystanders with a UAV brings up separate issues of criminal law.
Recreational drone manufacturers usually urge buyers to purchase separate drone insurance. For instance, boutique UAV maker Lift Off UAV includes a request that customers insure themselves with every purchase. Lift Off specifically notes that model aircraft are not generally covered by liability insurance. The line between model aircrafts and drones is blurry because of the availability of cheap, high-powered cameras and GPS units that turn even the most modest remote controlled aircraft into a sophisticated self-flying tool. And model aircraft already cause a number of injuries each year, according to an insurance report by the American Model Association (PDF), approximately 35 claims annually are presented to the AMA, which insures model airplane enthusiasts. Approximately 20 are property damage and 15 involve bodily harm.
At the moment, no certification or licensing exists for operators of UAV aircraft in the United States. Learning to fly a small quadrocopter is simple and can be done in about the time it takes to visit a local Barnes & Noble or ordering, say, a mullet wig from Amazon. The FAA is expected to start a certification or licensing process for UAV pilots, though the contours of the plan are not yet known.