Can Energy Companies Legally Use Drones?


With an almost eagle-eye-view of the Rocky Mountains from his office in Denver, Robert Attai advises clients on the emerging field of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), otherwise known as drones. A partner in the law firm of Husch Blackwell, his clients sometime seek advice after acquiring a smaller firm that is using UAS in their operations. Other times, a manager in the field starts using UAS without running it by headquarters first, leaving the company open to legal complications. Despite much of the legal confusion surrounding the use of UAS, Attai’s message is clear: without prior permission by the FAA, commercial use of drones is still illegal. That, however, is not the end of the story.

Military Gone Silicon Valley

Over the past few years, drones have undergone a radical transformation. Once the purview of the military and hobbyists, drones have become big business, with companies as diverse as humanitarian groups to big oil trying to cash in on the promised efficiency.

For the energy industry, the uses are well documented. The technology promises to improve efficiency, increase worker safety, and cover territory faster and more efficiently than humans. For solar, drones can detect malfunctioning panels. For pipeline operators, drones can scan vast areas to spot problems. And for utilities, drones can identify outages after a big storm.

“The uses are just as broad as your mind can envision,” said David Agee, another lawyer with Husch Blackwell, whose client list includes a major agricultural company and real estate firm with interest in utilizing UAS. Agee added that, “a lot of the energy companies are pining for the ability to quickly, remotely, quietly, efficiently and cleanly survey huge areas of land.” Still, the technology has outpaced the law. In a rare act in 2012, Congress mandated the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to speed up the process of commercial drone integration.

Hands Off the Joystick

Operating a drone for commercial uses is still illegal in most cases, not to mention that insurance typically doesn’t cover any accidents. “There’s a misconception by many people that the FAA has no control over the ground space under 500 feet,” said Attai. “Under current positions of the FAA, the only way you can lawfully utilize a drone for commercial use is to request a certificate of authority,” he added.

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