Considerations of a Legal Framework for the Safe and Resilient Operation of Autonomous Aerial Robots
Cameron R. Cloar and Donna A. Dulo
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Aviation industry analysts project the market for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (“UAS”), commonly referred to as drones, may reach almost $15 billion in annual worldwide sales within the current decade, and foresee exponential growth after that. They are destined to perform an unprecedented variety of tasks once the aircraft are integrated into our airspace in 2015, as set out in the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. These systems will perform search and rescue, survey rugged terrain, deliver pizza, photograph the world in a wide range of media, battle forest fires and perform other tasks that stretch the limits of the imagination. The extent of innovation for UAS is seemingly limitless. Yet, within this futuristic vision emerges an essential issue that cannot be ignored: safety.
It is a paramount concern that all UAS must have significant safety systems to ensure inherent resilience in the event of system failure or an external mishap. However, one potential subset of this new fledgling industry that presents unique safety challenges is autonomous UAS. Currently, many aerial systems operate under mostly human control; however, some segments of their operation can and will soon undoubtedly be done autonomously. For example, in the event of lost communications with the human operator, otherwise known as a lost link, or in a near collision that can trigger an automatic response in some systems, the UAS could be thrust into a total autonomous mode to alleviate the potential emergency.
Still other UAS on the market now and next are designed to operate under complete autonomy from takeoff to touchdown. In short, the spectrum for aerial robots operating autonomously is broad and increases by the day. The rapidly advancing technology raises numerous potential safety issues for all aircraft operating in the National Airspace System (“NAS”), as well as everyone occupying the ground below.
For now, the FAA has indicated that even when UAS are integrated into the NAS, its legal framework will not permit the use of autonomous technology. Foreclosing the use of such technology may stifle or end investment into some of the most promising and beneficial UAS platforms. Although challenging, the FAA should work to develop a legal framework that allows for the use of autonomous UAS technology. Legal rules for this UAS subset must account for many factors such as the underlying software, algorithms and mathematics that drive the robotic systems, the interface between the robotic systems and potential human operators, if any, the interface between the robotic system and the collision avoidance system, as well as all inherent onboard authority systems.
With this paper, the authors hope to begin the important discussion on developing a unified set of legal principles that may serve as the foundation to someday permit the operation of autonomous UAS. A legal framework will ensure that designers and manufacturers have the freedom of invention and innovation while having a defined set of rules with which to develop their aerial robotic systems to ensure safe, resilient autonomous and semi-autonomous operations in the national airspace. It will ensure that operators understand the bounds with which their vehicles must operate safely in the NAS. As importantly, such a framework assists legal practitioners and the judicial system in defining areas of product liability, operator liability, as well as areas of negligence and potential criminal culpability.
Our discussion is informed by the “UAS Autonomy Spectrum,” a visual system developed by the authors. While initially prepared for application to autonomous UAS, our ideas may be adaptable to other related new technology, including unmanned underwater robots, self-driving land vehicles, and any type of robotic vehicle that has varying degrees of autonomous capabilities. It touches upon the regulatory framework for aircraft under the Federal Aviation Regulations; with a particular emphasis on the new consensus-driven standards that are envisioned will reshape the design and certification of small general aviation aircraft. While our discussion is by no means complete, nor intended to serve as a final set of legal rules that can govern autonomous aerial technology, we hope that it will serve as a guide for stakeholders and help to ensure that unmanned aerial robots become the safe and resilient transformative innovations that they are destined to be.