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More law firms launching unmanned-aircraft practice groups

There’s definitely something in the air.

Several firms — including Morrison & Foerster, Hogan Lovells LLP, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, Holland & Knight LLP, and most recently Hunton & Williams LLP — have created practice groups focusing on unmanned aircraft systems, known as UAS. The firms are focusing on what’s known in common parlance as drones.

Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP was the first to start a specialized practice because of special counsel Brendan Schulman’s representation of Raphael Pirker, a hobbyist who is battling with the Federal Aviation Administration over the use of a drone near the University of Virginia.

Lawyers at these firms say they are responding to their clients’ needs, often arising from the lack of regulatory clarity in the airspace for a UAS. Currently, “hobbyists are free to operate a UAS so long as they’re not doing it for compensation,” said Kenneth Quinn, a Pillsbury partner. Commercial uses face a blanket proscription, with the FAA now considering petitions for exemptions from the general ban.

It’s yet another instance of technology outpacing the underlying regulatory framework. The result is an uptick in legal work.

Pirker, for example, was initially fined for his drone operation, but an administrative law judge overturned the decision. The FAA has appealed the ruling to the National Transportation Safety Board, and the parties are awaiting a ruling, Schulman said Wednesday in an email.

The practices are often multidisciplinary. At Morrison & Foerster, for example, the group brings together lawyers who specialize in aviation, environmental, product-liability, privacy, corporate and patent law.

Partner William O’Connor said Morrison & Foerster is actively seeking an exemption for one of its clients, but is also drafting petitions for exemptions for several other clients, including one who “has a significant amount of land that needs monitoring, and another that is an energy company.”

Holland & Knight’s “drone practice team” represented a coalition of news organizations urging the National Transportation Safety Board in the Pirker case to find that the First Amendment protects newsgathering by unmanned aircraft.

On Wednesday, Hunton & Williams announced the formation of a multidisciplinary “unmanned aircraft systems integration unit.”

In describing their work, lawyers typically shy from employing the “drone” nomenclature. As Ted Ellett, a partner at Hogan Lovells who chairs that firm’s practice said, “drone has a particular connotation that means either a military operation or a means to conduct surveillance.”

In contrast, civil applications, like those proposed by his clients, are very different and shouldn’t raise military concerns or questions of invading privacy, Ellett, a former chief counsel of the FAA, said.