As technology continues to expand the potential uses for unmanned aerial systems (UAS) in the commercial sector, drones are becoming an increasingly common sight in the United States. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) predicts that new technology, coupled with relaxed regulations promulgated under the Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Rule, will accelerate growth in the coming years, and that by 2022, there will be over 450,000 small UAS in use for commercial purposes.
One industry that has seen especially high growth in the use of UAS is the oil and gas industry. Currently, drones are most frequently deployed to inspect infrastructure like pipelines, drilling rigs, and refineries. However, they are beginning to take on roles in exploration operations, and as the technology continues to improve, the potential uses in this phase are seemingly limitless.
While this potential is certainly exciting, both property owners and exploration companies alike should be cognizant of the legal implications of the expanding usage of UAS in the oil and gas industry. Drone technology has the chance to revolutionize how exploration operations are conducted moving forward. At the same time, these new capabilities strain the application of common law property and privacy principles developed at a time when UAS technology could not even be fathomed.
As a result, it appears that currently the most viable way to take advantage of UAS—to efficiently develop the country’s energy resources—and also adequately protect mineral and surface interest holders is to specifically address drones when negotiating and drafting agreements. However, if for any reason contracting proves ineffective in this pursuit, the FAA or the states must intervene to properly advance property and privacy law into the age of drones.