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.

One thought on “Planes, Trains . . . and Drones?

  1. This article perfectly encapsulates how the law must evolve in a world where such advanced technology becomes available to the public. Looking forward to hearing about any further developments.

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