Commercial Drones – A Plethora of Problems!

Thursday 20th November 2014

Graeme Davy, a solicitor in our Commercial Litigation team, takes a light-hearted look at the “Amazon” drone.

As Europe ponders how to regulate the use of drones for commercial activity, the lawyers amongst us are mulling over how this will affect our legal advice.

Consider the following scenario: a product is ordered online and the retailer prepares it for delivery.  The customer clicked the “deliver by drone” option; it’s cheaper and quicker, so why not?  In doing so, the customer agreed that the retailer could not be held responsible for any damage caused by the drone when on the customer’s land – the damaged fence that it clipped as it swooped down from European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) controlled airspace, or the dented front door caused by a careless remote controller back at depot.  Ah, the latter shouldn’t be a problem however, as an Australian company ( has invented a net which is fixed to the purchaser’s property, using lasers to guide in the drone.  But therein lies another problem.  Children are playing in the garden and one of the lasers catches their eyes; one for the personal injury lawyers?  The other children, seeing that the drone has injured their friend, start throwing sticks and stones at it, bringing it down with a thump on the driveway, causing £1000s of damage to the drone and loss of profit to the retailer, given it can’t continue with its deliveries for the rest of the day; one for the police and our commercial litigators perhaps.  Saying all that, the main retailers decide that there will be insurance cover, and none of this will be a problem, financially anyway.

Now that’s in the early days, when companies are finding their feet and regulators try to find the balance between safety and economic growth.  Think of the situation 10 years on when drones are established and more popular than ever.

EASA controls the majority of European airspace but the usual legal presumption on who owns airspace still applies.  A land owner owns the airspace above their land to the extent that it is reasonably necessary for the ordinary use and enjoyment of their land and the structures on itNow, let’s think of the controller at the depot.  She now has 10 years’ experience, knows the best way to get drones from A to B and continually hits her targets and delivery slots.  One such route however runs directly across a landowner’s field.  It cuts the journey time by 75%.  The landowner has tolerated the drones for a few years, but given the amount of drones in the sky the controller is having to fly lower and lower each time.  The landowner sees an opportunity: a drone ‘ransom strip’; another one for the litigators.  He quickly does a deal with the retailer, and the commercial property lawyers prepare a Drone Deed of Easement.  These are becoming commonplace, and Drone Lawyers are springing up around the country: that’s a lawyer specialising in Drone Law, rather than an actual drone lawyer!

The controller also regularly cuts a corner over an elderly lady’s house is it swoops down to her neighbour, who operates his business from home.  Putting aside the blatant trespass, the audible drone of the drone is playing havoc with her hearing aid, and the signals generated by the drone are affecting her old fashioned Freeview HD digital TV signal: a nuisance claim perhaps?

30 years on and it has all settled down.  The public has become used to the drones in the sky, quite fond of them in fact.  But change is afoot.  Commercial teleportation is on the horizon.