In December 2013, the Federal Aviation Administration selected public entities in six states, including Hawaii, to test drones. Under the direction of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, facilities in Hawaii partnered with others to conduct drone tests for potential military, commercial and noncommercial applications.
It was not long until a staff member at Paul J. Sulla, Jr. Attorney at Law, arrived at work and said, “I just saw my first drone!” Drones on the Big Island and here in Hilo, HI are common. Residents see them filming surfers, lava flows, and steep ravines. They map inaccessible areas and offer photo opportunities that are impossible by other means.
This all seems harmless enough, or is it?
In October, state representatives from Hawaii and Alaska signed a memorandum of understanding to formalize cooperation on a host of aerospace services. Traditionally, military and space research overlap, and future drone testing in both states will almost certainly involve new military drone technology.
Drone testing has been conducted by the military in Hawaii for years. But drones in Hawaii were rarely seen being operated by civilians in civilian areas. This is changing rapidly. It still remains to be seen if this is a good thing or a bad thing for the community. Likely it will be like everything else: A mixed bag that benefits some and irks others.
For now, the primary legal concerns regarding drones involves private property. Homeowners may feel their privacy or safety is being violated. There is also the concern of property damage and finding hwo is liable for it.
After all, many drones are still experimental and it is not unheard of for experimental aircraft to fall out of the sky. If they fall on you or your property, how can you tell who is responsible for the damage? Do the drones have license plates? Insurance? And how do we know who is taking pictures of us on our own land and for what purpose?
Many people come to Hawaii because it is remote. More people buy surplus acreage here to ensure that they have seclusion and privacy. It doesn’t really matter why. Isn’t it a property owner’s right to do things like sunbathe topless in the privacy of their own backyard without fear of a remotely-controlled video of their exploits being released on the Internet?
What about the celebrities who own property in Hawaii? Do they have a right against paparazzi flying over their estate and then publishing private photos? Is private property in Hawaii becoming less valuable and less exclusive the more the drones invade our skies? These are all important questions to ask before embracing Hawaii as a “go to” destination for drone testing.
It’s a new world with new technology and new problems, which will likely lead to an entirely new field for litigation. If you or anyone you know has had a problematic encounter with a drone, it might make sense to begin seeking legal recourse. It’s only a matter of time before an irresponsible drone operator violates someone’s legal rights in Hawaii!