Drones and other unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are rising in popularity and usage over the past few years; according to Drone Analyst, the drone industry is estimated to value at $4.4 billion in 2021. However, these companies are also facing increased litigation and federal regulation. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) there are more than 1.7 million drone registrations and 203,000 FAA remote pilot certifications.
For example, in 2019, the Department of the Interior (DOI) immobilized 800 drones used to monitor endangered species, inspect federally protected land, among other things, in part because the drones were primarily made in China and there was growing fear of Chinese spying via these drones. In early 2020, the FAA proposed a rule requiring the remote identification of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in an effort to address safety and security concerns. Meanwhile, the DOI issued a policy in January 2020 designed to limit the use of drones and UAVs made abroad to mitigate fears that the information that drones collect may be used by foreign entities or governments. Additionally, the FAA issued regulation for unmanned aircraft and drones in December 2020, requiring drones and UAVs to be equipped with remote identification technology, as well as, allowing small drone operators to fly over people and at night in certain conditions.
The FAA and DOI are not the only government agencies to take on the impact of drones and emerging regulations. The Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) Wireless Telecommunications Bureau and Office of Engineering and Technology announced that a report revealed that the 5030-5091 MHz spectrum is suitable for operation of UASs. Additionally, several federal agencies released an advisory on various ‘counter-drone’ technology regulations, including the Department of Justice, the FAA, the Department of Homeland Security and the FCC. The advisory is designed to help non-government entities and the public better understand federal laws and regulations that could apply to technological capabilities to detect and mitigate UAS threats. Furthermore, the FCC issued a $2.8 million fine against drone manufacturer HobbyKing for offering drone transmission devices that did not adhere to licensing rules.
In late August 2020, Amazon.com, Inc. won FAA approval to use its Prime Air drones fleet for light package delivery. Meanwhile, Irish company Manna is delivering groceries and other items across Ireland, is licensed to do so in the European Union and is expected to venture into Canada, according to Forbes; drone delivery is purportedly cheaper and faster than other means of transporting deliveries. Texas-based startup Paladin launches Knighthawk, a first response drone for cities, to respond to emergencies better and faster, according to Tech Crunch. Drones can also be used for photography and videography, as well as agricultural crop spraying. While drone companies are being sued, there are other lawsuits not aimed at drone or UAV companies, but are drone-related. For example, a media production company sued New York City to challenge a law that effectively bans drones in the metropolis.
The following is an analysis of lawsuits involving drone manufacturing companies in U.S. district courts from January 2020 to August 15, 2021.
DJI is a Shenzhen, China-based drone manufacturer and a leading drone manufacturer in the world. DJI has faced U.S. regulation, specifically, in December 2020, the drone maker was added to the Department of Commerce’s (DOC) ‘entity list’ along with 76 others. Being on the DOC’s list prohibits DJI from purchasing technology from American companies without a license from the U.S. government, thus preventing the export of American technology to DJI.
Lawsuits against DJI entities have been filed in the Western District of Texas, Central District of California, District of Delaware, and Southern District of New York. Cases concern patents, civil rights, and Americans with Disabilities Act issues. DJI’s entities facing these lawsuits are DJI Technology, DJI Europe, and SZ DJI Technology.
For example, DJI Technology has been involved in four lawsuits from January 2020 to August 15, 2021; there was a wave of activity toward the end of 2020 and into 2021. In one of the lawsuits, Fury Technologies sued DJI for patent infringement concerning DJI’s purportedly infringing products the DJI Phantom 4, DJI Terra and DJI Construction Solution. Highlights of previous DJI litigation against drone competitors include a lawsuit against Yuneec and Autel, respectively, for patent infringement.
In 2020, DJI Technology was represented by Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, and in 2021 by Shaw Keller and Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton. Similarly, DJI Europe and SZ DJI Technology in 2021 are represented by Shaw Keller and Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton. All of these parties are primarily the defendant in their respective litigation.
Meanwhile, some law firms not representing DJI that are generally representing the opposing party in this litigation are Baker Botts, Gottlieb & Associates, Insight PLC, and Sand Sebolt and Wernow.
Remote-controlled aircraft manufacturer Yuneec has been in the drone or drone-related industry for more than 15 years, according to its website. Specifically, Yuneec drones include the Typhoon H3 and the Typhoon H Plus.
Yuneec’s litigation has occurred in the Central District of California and the District of Delaware. The lawsuits have been related to contract and patents, among others. Yuneec has been the defendant in all of its litigation. Interestingly, Yuneec has only faced lawsuits from early 2020 and no lawsuits thus far in 2021. Yuneec was sued by Fury Technologies and Convergeone. While no counsel has been noted in these lawsuits, in DJI’s lawsuit against Yuneec, Morrison & Foerster represented Yuneec. Meanwhile, the opposing parties’ law firms for the 2020 litigation are Drinker Biddle & Reath and The Chong Law Firm.
AgEagle, a commercial drone company, has been the defendant in three lawsuits from January 2020 to August 15, 2021, all of which were filed in the Central District of California; although all three lawsuits were filed in 2021. The lawsuits are tagged as securities, commodities, exchange and stockholder suits.
Specifically, one of the lawsuits, filed in February 2021, alleged that AgEagle and several executives and board members made false and misleading statements to investors about a large partnership.
While representation has not been given for AgEagle, law firm representation for parties in the litigation that are not representing AgEagle, include: Pomerantz; Bragar Eagel and Squire; Glancy Prongay and Murray; Rosen Law Firm; Kessler Topaz Meltzer and Check; Levi and Korsinsky; Rosman and Germain; and Wagner Firm.
Frequent Litigant – Fury Technologies
In April 2020, Fury Technologies seems to have targeted drone and UAV companies, including Yuneec, Parrot, DroneDeploy, 3D Robotics, and DJI for patent infringement. The lawsuits were filed in the District of Delaware, Central District of California, and Southern District of New York.
Fury Technologies is the plaintiff in its five patent lawsuits, where Chong Law Firm represents it in three of the lawsuits. Insight PLC, Sand Sebolt & Wernow, and the Law Office of Nicholas Loaknauth also represented Fury Technologies.
Drone regulation and lawsuits are at its infancy. As drones move from must-have tech toys for hobbyists, and photographers, the use of drones in land patrolling (private and public) and as an efficient delivery model for manufacturers and retailers will inevitably lead to the next wave of torts in privacy, trespass, and nuisance suits normally reserved for the ground. This analysis highlights that intellectual property is a priority and an issue among drone manufacturers. An exploration of state and criminal lawsuits as well as lawsuits involving drone operators and regulators will help illustrate other issues and trends in drone litigation.