It was recently reported by Jim Williams, head of the unmanned-aircraft office at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), that a near inflight collision incident occurred between a drone flying at 2,300 feet above the ground and US Airways flight number 4650 into Tallahassee.  This near mid-air collision allegedly occurred back in March and is just now being reported.

The operator of the drone is unknown, but the FAA official said that the pilot of the regional jet told officials that on March 22 he came dangerously close to a small remotely piloted aircraft about 2,300 feet above the ground near Tallahassee Regional Airport in Florida. The FAA official allegedly made this statement for the first time at a drone conference in San Francisco this past Thursday.  Although, people generally only think of drones in a military context, in recent years the use of drones in a non-military context has surged as the devices have become smaller, less expensive and easier to fly.  Even though drones have become more prevalent in our air space, the FAA, meanwhile, has lagged behind in setting formal rules for drone use.

Many drone users have complained about the delay. Some reports have estimated that at the earliest the FAA may have developed proposed regulations for drone use by November of this year.  Also, as the number of drones being used increases, the FCC will likely have to get involved due to the possible increase in radio frequency and microwave communications flooding the airways with these drones while in flight. Some reports have estimated that in the very near future, as many as 7,500 drones may be in flight nationally at any given time.

This near mid-air collision not only highlights the fact that regulations covering drones are needed, but also further emphasizes that many legal issues surrounding the use of drones will arise including tort law covering various potential liability issues surrounding the inevitable accidents that will occur and drone operator insurance coverage for such accidents.  Also, there will likely be an entire body of contracts and related contractual legal issues surrounding various issues including leasing the service of a drone.

This near mishap also highlights the need for new technology that will help manage drone usage to reduce the likelihood that such a mishap will occur.  As always, “need” is the mother of innovation, therefore, I would expect new innovations to surface that will make the use of drones a much safer proposition.  Therefore, innovators in this space will have to be mindful to protect their intellectual property contained within these innovations just as the early and current innovators in the Internet space had to in order to maximize and leverage their innovation.