A New York Law Firm Sees Opportunity in Commercial Drones

America’s best-known commercial drone litigator—a title that means nothing at this moment—is a Harvard-trained lawyer with a garage full of model aircraft he’s been flying for 20 years, weather permitting. Brendan Schulman is special counsel at Manhattan law firm Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel, which launched an “unmanned aircraft systems practice group” in December. “We anticipate that there will be many different areas of law that will be impacted by the emergence of this new technology,” Schulman says, not unlike the myriad legal issues raised by the Internet’s rapid growth.

As commercial drone use expands to industries from agriculture to filmmaking, real estate, and utility inspections, the firm says it anticipates many new business opportunities. It’s not alone. Several large law firms across the U.S. have created similar specialties in recent months, including McKenna, Long & Aldridge and LeClair Ryan. Disputes are likely to arise over privacy issues, air and land-use rights, and matters of insurance, environmental, and regulatory compliance for drone operators.

All this lies in the future, after the Federal Aviation Administration has drafted its operating rules for smaller commercial drones that weigh less than 55 pounds. That size category covers the vast majority of commercial unmanned aircraft on the market today, many of them powered by batteries. While the FAA is expected to issue drone safety rules in late 2015, many enthusiasts in the field anticipate delays, noting the slow pace of relevant developments.

For now, the work in this area is growing. One new Kramer Levin client is Texas EquuSearch Mounted Search and Recovery, a Houston-based organization that uses an unmanned, five-pound foam and plastic aircraft to hunt missing people. In February, an FAA aviation safety inspector told Texas EquuSearch to halt making drone flights immediately. The agency told the nonprofit to operate its drones with a organization that holds one of the 500 operating certificates issued by the agency, mostly to law enforcement. EquuSearch contacted Schulman, who has since given the agency until April 16 to rescind the order or face a lawsuit. “In many instances, local rescuers have no access to manned aircraft or helicopters and the model aircraft represents the only option for obtaining an aerial view of locations that need to be searched as soon as possible,” Schulman wrote (PDF) to the FAA’s acting general counsel.

A month ago, Kramer Levin secured its first win in skirmishing with the feds over commercial drone use when a federal administrative law judge, ruling that the FAA cannot enforce its ban on drone flights, overturned a $10,000 penalty assessed against a videographer who had used a drone to shoot a promotional video at the University of Virginia. The FAA is appealing the ruling to the full National Transportation Safety Board.

Schulman attended Yale University as an undergraduate and then received a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He specializes in law and technology with a focus on electronic communications in commercial disputes. He has been building and flying model aircraft for some 20 years, a hobby that sparked his interest in the legal issues that will inevitably arise when thousands of commercial drones go into daily use.

“I’m more familiar with the term model aircraft, but in the past couple years what I know as model aircraft have been referred to as drones many, many times,” says Schulman, who flies his craft at a New Jersey park dedicated to model aircraft flying near his home. “That simply means that I have a garage full of drones, much to my surprise.”

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