Planes, Trains . . . and Drones?

Unmanned aircraft systems (“UAS”), more widely known as drones, have been a hot discussion topic in recent years. Last spring, Penn State hosted a program called “World on Trial” which examined the legality of the use of UAS by the U.S. Government to target suspected terrorists. Critics have argued the military’s use of drones violates international humanitarian law, human rights law, and domestic U.S. law.

Given technological advances and decreasing costs, many companies are now seeking commercial applications of UAS. Corporations, such as Amazon, view the technology as an innovative customer delivery service, or as an opportunity to increase their profits or market share. Real estate firms are using drones to more efficiently survey property. An article in The Atlantic proclaims that “developing countries are skipping over roads and going straight to drones for providing healthcare,” as companies deliver medications and aid to rural clinics in Rwanda. [1]  Even Disney, which has achieved FAA-approved no-fly zones over its American theme parks, wants to fly drones.[2]

More specifically, the Washington Post discussed the potential benefits UAS may bring to rail freight carriers by allowing for the remote inspection of railroad infrastructure.[3] In 2015, the FAA granted BNSF Railway permission to use drones to inspect parts of its 32,500 miles of track. According to the Association of American Railroads, Union Pacific has also secured FAA approval for the use of drones.[4] Using drones equipped with high-definition cameras, safety inspectors may examine rail lines where dangerous weather conditions would otherwise keep on-foot personnel away.

In Europe, PKP Cargo, a Polish freight carrier, uses drones to patrol its railways and protect its cargo.[5] The company believes that drones have been responsible for a 44 percent reduction in thefts on the rail network since the program began in 2015.[6]

In the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration has acknowledged railroads’ safety concerns in its rulemaking process. In its December 16, 2015 interim final rule requiring the registration and marking requirements for small unmanned aircraft, the FAA noted Union Pacific Railroad’s support for “other reasonable measures to encourage accountability and responsibility in small UAS operations including restrictions on any unauthorized commercial or recreational operations over certain safety-sensitive locations, such as railroad facilities.” Registration and Marking Requirements for Small Unmanned Aircraft, 80 Fed. Reg. 78594, 78734 (Dec. 16, 2015) (to be codified at 14 CFR 47).

Domestic drone regulation emerged after Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, directing the U.S Department of Transportation and the FAA to integrate UAS into the domestic airspace. In its proposed rule, the FAA imposed some of the following operational requirements for small UAS:

  • to be between 0.55 lbs and 55 lbs
  • daylight-only operation
  • maximum altitude of 500 feet
  • maximum airspeed of 100 mph
  • visual line-of-sight requirement
  • minimum weather visibility of 3 miles from control station
  • aircraft marking and registration requirements.

Most recently, on February 24, 2016, the FAA established an aviation rulemaking committee to develop operating standards for micro UAS, defined as UAS weighing no more than 4.4 pounds and “constructed of frangible materials that break, distort or yield on impact.” Based on the Committee’s findings, the FAA will propose rules for these UAS so that they may be operated safely over people while minimizing potential hazards. The committee will send a report to the FAA Administrator on April 1, 2016. Stay tuned for the Committee’s recommendations: this is a rapidly evolving area of the law, as the FAA attempts to balance innovation and economic interests with the safety of people and property.


 Tim Joseph is a 3L and a Senior Editor for the Journal of Law and International Affairs at the Penn State University Dickinson School of Law.


[1] Olga Khazan. The Atlantic “A Drone to Save the World”. Apr. 4, 2015

[2]Matt McFarland; “Disney Loved Its No-Fly-Zone Until It Wanted to Fly Its Own Drones” The Washington Post; Jan. 22, 2016.

[3] Brian Fung. The Washington Post. The future of train safety lies in drones. May 13, 2015.

[4]Association of American Railroads. 2016 State of the Industry Reports, “Aerial Drones Provide Rail Safety from the Sky.

[5] Global Rail News. “Security drones to be used by Polish rail freight operator. Sept. 2, 2015.

[6] Id.

Brazil: A Biofuel Powerhouse

In contrast to a number of countries that have failed to create an economically viable biofuel industry, Brazil has developed the first successful biofuel economy in the world. With roots in a program first launched in 1975, Brazil’s success stems from a variety of factors that are seemingly unique to this South American nation. As ethanol is a natural by-product of the sugar milling process, Brazil’s vast sugarcane industry contributes to its ability to produce ethanol at a price competitive with oil. Much can be learned from Brazil’s success, and these lessons suggest that nations seeking to develop economically viable alternative energy sources should analyze their own unique qualities so that they incentivize an alternative source of energy that is compatible.

Unlike other South American countries blessed with vast hydrocarbon reserves, Brazil is forced to import virtually all of its oil and natural gas. Thus, in order to reduce its dependence on foreign producers and to take advantage of its burgeoning sugar industry, Brazil enacted legislation that mandated ethanol be added to gasoline to create a mixture comprised of at least 5% ethanol in 1931. Devastated by OPEC’s 1973 oil embargo, Brazil responded by launching the National Alcohol Program in 1975. Consequently, sugarcane farmers were incentivized to grow additional sugarcane for the purpose of producing ethanol and sugarcane and ethanol production grew. 

One factor contributing to the economic viability is Brazil’s long history growing sugarcane. Sugarcane was one of the first commodities Brazil exported to Europe, and Brazil has grown sugarcane since approximately 1532. Accordingly, Brazil has developed, mainly through its state-owned Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, some of the most advanced biotechnology and agronomic technology in the world. This investment has yielded impressive results: from 1977 to 2004, the amount of recoverable sugar from sugarcane has increased by 1.5% per year, and has resulted in an increase from 95 to 140 kilograms per hectare. This has translated into a vast increase in liters of ethanol per hectare.

One other critical factor is the availability of cheap, arable land. According to a recent study, Brazil has approximately 610,000,000 hectares of arable land, representing 71% of its total area. Moreover, this land gets abundant rainfall and sunlight, meaning that ”everything just grows faster, bigger, and better all year round.” Indeed, there is so much arable land that many have concluded that Brazil’s success is impossible to replicate in other countries because they are not able to devote as much land to ethanol production as Brazil can.

Brazil’s success has not been replicated elsewhere. While the United States is the largest producer of ethanol fuel, the United States has heavily subsidized its industry and has thus created an artificially low price. Brazil’s ability to produce ethanol at competitive price stems not from subsidy, but from its unique combination of agricultural technology and vast swaths of arable land. Only by identifying their own market advantages will another country succeed in developing an alternative energy industry.

Stephen Dotts is a 3L and a Senior Editor for the Journal of Law and International Affairs at the Penn State University Dickinson School of Law.

Citations to articles & documents are included in the aforementioned underlined hyperlinks.