The Legal and Regulatory Aspects of Delivery Drones
Sun, April 18, 2021

The Legal and Regulatory Aspects of Delivery Drones

The Part 135 Certification allows a company to “deliver beyond the line of sight.” / Photo by: IgorZh via Shutterstock


Companies are exploring the drone delivery market but they must be prepared to handle its legal aspects such as obtaining a Part 135 certification, according to Matt Leonard of supply chain and logistics news site Supply Chain Drive. A Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) spokesperson told the outlet in an email, “Part 135 certification is currently the only path for small drones to carry the property of another for compensation beyond visual line of sight.”

The FAA Reauthorization Action of 2018 told the FAA to update its regulations with regard to the “commercial operation of small drones that carry packages.” The FAA said this process has been through existing regulations like Part 135. However, there are also other legal aspects of commercial drone operation that must be urgently tackled. 

The Part 135 Certification

This certificate allows a company to “deliver beyond the line of sight.” However, if the path the delivery drone is flying on is visible, then it is under the part 107 rules, explained Basil Yap, who is the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) program manager. 

Alphabet’s Wing Aviation and UPS were the first two companies to receive Part 135 certifications. The FAA’s official website explained that there are “multiple levels of Part 135 clearances.” These can range from a Single pilot operator to a Standard operator. The latter has “no limits on the size or scope of operations.” In this case, a single pilot certificate was issued to Wing Aviation, while UPS was given the Standard part 135 clearance. 

Yap added that UPS’ certificate is more robust as the company can fly multiple drones beyond the visual line of sight in certain areas. It wasn’t the first one to apply for this kind of certificate. Amazon applied for a certificate but the FAA has yet to decide on its application. The agency requested the firm for more information on its drone program. 

On the other hand, UPS has participated in the FAA drone Integration Pilot Program (IPP) and gained experience with operating a freight airline, which helped move its application, Yap noted, who collaborated with UPS as a part of the IPP in North Carolina. He said, “They went above and beyond and pulled in a lot of their UPS expertise from their airline.” 

They brought people together to create a training program and to write manuals. According to Yap, all of the aforementioned requirements are needed in order for a company to operate under Part 135 “as a professional, non-scheduled air carrier service provider.” UPS and Wings’ participation in the IPP played a huge role in obtaining a Part 135 certificate, making them go to the front of the line.

Don’t Expect to See Delivery Drones Anytime Soon 

However, a Part 135 certification doesn’t entitle organizations to start venturing into the drone delivery market right away. As of now, drone delivery will not be ubiquitous. For instance, UPS operates a standard aircraft, which is purchased from other companies like Boeing or Airbus that have received a certification. The Matternet drone UPS is using has not been granted this certification, but the company is working on its application. 

Hence, it needs to apply for an exemption to Part 135, allowing it to use Matternet drones in a pilot setting. Yap stated that the certification UPS applied for is location-specific. If they want to fly its Matternet drones in another location and state, they have to issue another exception specific to that location.


The Matternet drone UPS is using has not been granted this certification, but the company is working on its application. / Photo by: Goran Bogicevic via 123rf


Despite Having a Part 135 Certification, More Problems Lie Ahead for Delivery Drones

Some challenges that companies that will use drones to need to overcome are the following:

1. Trespassing

If a drone flies over your house, is it considered trespassing? Some property owners asserted their ownership over a certain amount of the airspace above their homes, meaning drones that fly into that area without permission would be seen as unwanted visitors, reported Samantha Masunaga of Los Angeles Times, California’s daily newspaper. Others say they don’t own that airspace since the FAA stipulated “that no one has the right to interfere with the flight of an aircraft.” Associate professor of law at Albany Law School Robert Heverly observed the uncertainty in the law with regard to those issues. 

2. Liability

If a drone falls over your head, who’s at fault? The drone operator or their employer would be the most liable, as it is in line with the standard rules of negligence, Heverly stated. The same standards would apply if a drone damaged someone’s property in the middle of a delivery. However, liability issues could get more complex if delivery firms hired subcontractors to operate the drones. In general, the subcontractors would be held liable, not the companies. But it also depends on “how much control the companies” have over their subcontractors.  If a drone did hit you, your lawyer would likely sue the drone operator and the firm that employed the operator, Heverly added.

3. Noise

Small drones can be quieter than large ones. The higher the drones fly, the more the sound becomes less noticeable, Heverly explained. However, regulating noise levels in the United States is up to local governments. 

Drone delivery is a promising innovation. But legal and regulatory issues should be tackled first before delivery drones become more ubiquitous. Even if companies are issued with a Part 135 certificate, they must be prepared to address and discuss the abovementioned issues.