Integration of Drones into Domestic Airspace: Selected Legal Issues [January 30, 2013] [open pdf - 362KB]
"Under the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, P.L. [Public Law] 112-95, Congress has tasked the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) with integrating unmanned aircraft systems (UASs), sometimes referred to as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones, into the national airspace system by September 2015. Although the text of this act places safety as a predominant concern, it fails to establish how the FAA should resolve significant, and up to this point, largely unanswered legal questions. For instance, several legal interests are implicated by drone flight over or near private property. Might such a flight constitute a trespass? A nuisance? If conducted by the government, a constitutional taking? In the past, the Latin maxim 'cujus est solum ejus est usque ad coelum' (for whoever owns the soil owns to the heavens) was sufficient to resolve many of these types of questions, but the proliferation of air flight in the 20th century has made this proposition untenable. Instead, modern jurisprudence concerning air travel is significantly more nuanced, and often more confusing. Some courts have relied on the federal definition of 'navigable airspace' to determine which flights could constitute a trespass. Others employ a nuisance theory to ask whether an overhead flight causes a substantial impairment of the use and enjoyment of one's property. Additionally, courts have struggled to determine when an overhead flight constitutes a government taking under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments."
CRS Report for Congress, R42940