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Drones Are Being Used for Crimes, but Is the Law Ready?

drone next to barbed wire fence
By FindLaw Staff on November 15, 2019 11:56 AM

Drones have become a regular sight (and sound) in many areas and are being used for both commercial and recreational purposes. Unfortunately, drones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are also being used for more nefarious activities such as dropping homemade bombs.

It is not unusual for new, relatively unregulated technologies to be used to facilitate illegal activities. People are using drones to achieve their illicit goals, but can these individuals face legal charges specifically for their drone usage?

Drones and Criminal Law

The area of drone and UAV law is rapidly changing to compensate for the development of the drone industry and the increase in drone usage. However, at this point, very few criminal laws directly address the use of drones for criminal activities.

That means when a drone is used to complete a crime, individuals can be charged for the crime itself, but usually nothing drone-specific.

There are also regulations regarding UAV usage, generally, that individuals can be held accountable for failing to follow, although state and local law enforcement usually lack the ability to charge offenders under those laws.

Federal and State Drone Laws

One of the most important distinctions in current drone law is between recreational and commercial UAV use.

Recreational Drone Use

Those who want to pilot a drone recreationally have to:

  • Register the drone with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
  • Affix the FAA registration number on the drone
  • Fly the drone below 400 feet
  • Follow any state and local regulations regarding UAV usage

Those who want to pilot a drone for commercial purposes have to go through more steps.

Commercial Drone Use

Most federal laws regarding drones — particularly Part 107 — specify regulations for commercial UAV usage, and training and certification requirements for pilots. Some basic UAV regulations include:

  • UAVs cannot weigh more than 55 lbs.
  • Pilots must be able to see their drones (visual-line-of-sight)
  • Manned aircraft always have right-of-way

It is important to note that many other federal agencies also regulate UAV operations in some way, including the Transportation Safety Administration, the Department of Transportation, and the Federal Communication Commission, and those agencies have their own regulations.

Although consequences for many criminal activities generally outweigh the consequences for not following drone laws, not following UAV laws can have significant legal repercussions as well.

Because UAV laws are changing so rapidly, it can be difficult for people to stay up-to-date on the most current regulations. An experienced legal professional can be a valuable resource if you have questions about the legality of your own drone usage or are facing drone-related charges.

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