By Sharon Frankenberg,
Attorney at Law

Unmanned aerial aircraft, commonly referred to as drones, are a new and growing industry. Cheaper and easier to maintain than helicopters, drones are being used by both the government and private sectors.   Currently, drones are helping to eradicate swamp mosquitoes in the Florida Keys. Locally, drones were used to survey fire damage at the McClung warehouses. They help monitor pollution and mange disasters.  There are applications for drones in agriculture and journalism.

Meteorologists are investigating using multiple drones to safely track the development of severe storms. From finding missing children and stranded hikers to patrolling our coastlines, drones have incredible potential to save lives and help people.

While the benefits of drone technology are great so are the concerns over its use in domestic surveillance.  Many states, Tennessee included, now have statutes restricting law enforcement’s use of drones to certain specified situations.  In Tennessee, the statute is found in Tennessee Code Annotated Section 39-13-609 and is known as the Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act.  This statute prohibits the use of a drone by law enforcement to “gather evidence or other information” except in the following five situations:  “1) To counter a high risk of a terrorist attack by a specific individual or organization if the United States secretary of homeland security determines that credible intelligence indicates that there is such a risk; 2) If the law enforcement agency first obtains a search warrant signed by a judge authorizing the use of a drone; 3) If the law enforcement agency posses reasonable suspicion that, under particular circumstances, swift action is needed to prevent imminent danger to life; 4) To provide continuous aerial coverage where law enforcement is searching for a fugitive or escapee or is monitoring a hostage situation; or 5) To provide more expansive aerial coverage when deployed for the purpose of searching for a missing person.”   Additional privacy protection is included in this section in that the data collected by the drone surveillance on an “individual, home or other areas other than the target that justified deployment” may not be used, copied or disclosed for any purpose.  This data must be deleted as soon as possible and in no event later than 24 hours after collection.  The statute even includes a civil remedy against law enforcement for its violation.

Besides concerns over government use of drones, the use of drones by private individuals is also a problem area.  While there are not any specific statutes covering this area yet, there are common law remedies for violations of privacy that could apply to situations involving drones.  Certainly, a drone sent into your backyard could be considered a trespass or nuisance.  Any damage to your property could also have a remedy in tort either for the intentional damage from a drone “attack” or for negligence from accidental damage caused by a drone.  The law regarding drones is developing and still adapting to meet the challenge of balancing the needs of society with our individual freedoms.  You should always consult an attorney for legal advice regarding your particular situation.  My office number is (865)539-2100.