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Law Firms Flying with Drone Practices

(Article courtesy of Bloomberg BNA)

This month, the insurance giant AIG announced it received federal approval to use drones to survey disaster areas, police in Northern India said they would use pepper-spray drones for crowd control and the Wall Street Journal reported on a farmer who uses drones to herd sheep.

Given the vast number of drones, officially called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), it’s no surprise that law firms are launching practice groups to help clients manage the patchwork of rules in this area, issued by the Federal Aviation Administration, European Aviation Safety Agency, United Nations and other international civil bodies.

“It’s a nascent industry that is changing extraordinarily, fast paced and already outstripping the ability of regulators to get a handle of it,” said Ken Quinn, who heads Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman’s new drone focus team and is former chief counsel of the FAA.

Such practices typically blend aviation, intellectual property, insurance, privacy, product liability, regulatory, lawyers said.

“To me there’s really no ceiling on this and it will continue to grow, which is what it makes it so exciting,” said Michael Drobac, a senior policy advisor at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, who calls himself a drone “evangelist.”

Drobac, who holds a law degree, said Akin Gump’s has carved out a niche representing about two dozen recreational and commercial UAV users and manufacturers. Its clients all belong to the Small UAV Coalition, an advocacy group that wants to remove “unnecessary policy or regulatory hurdles” that impede drone development beyond the line-of-sight for commercial, consumer and other purposes. Amazon Prime Air, DJI and Google[X] are all members of the Small UAV Coaltion; and Drobac is.executive director.

Christopher Carr, a partner in Morrison & Foerster’s San Francisco office who is co-head of the drone practice, said he and Bill O’Connor started the practice to handle a drone crash lawsuit. “It didn’t take much effort” to find the right lawyers within MoFo to fill out the group, Carr said.

Silicon Valley-based Cooley tries to match the specialist to the particular project for UAV clients, said Anne Swanson, a Cooley partner in Washington, D.C.

“It really touches so many bases for Cooley, it’s just exceptional,” said Swanson, who helped clients obtain the first eight exemptions the FAA granted for business commercial drone use.

Companies seeking exemptions under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act include BNSF Railway Co., Arizona Public Service Co. and Dow Chemical Corp. FAA has approved 99 exemptions, including 30 March 29-April 7, Swanson said.

The list of other firms with drone, or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) practices includes Jones Day, Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel, McKenna Long & Aldridge, Reed Smith and Wiley Rein.

Drobac, who was optimistic about the growth prospects of his practice, said there’s an increasing amount of competition from firms looking to start a drone practice: “Almost every firm has a drone practice. I’m not sure every firm has a drone client.”

Photo by Lima Pix (Flickr/Creative Commons)