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2015 Air & Space Law Conference Looks into the Future of Unmanned Aircraft and Space Travel

2015 Air & Space Law Symposium

Don’t call them drones. Call them unmanned aerial systems.

Although the “D” word came up many times during the second annual Air & Space Law Symposium hosted by California Western School of Law, to call unmanned aircraft drones in this room was nearly blasphemous because of the negative connotation drones carry.

The symposium’s attendees prefer to say unmanned aerial systems (UAS) or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV)—and these pilotless aircraft were a major topic of discussion at the conference.

Leaders in the aviation and aerospace industries attended the three-day symposium presented by the Air Law Institute and California Western’s Air Law Institute Collaborative Center.

“Through the Air Law Institute Collaborative Center, we can support enterprising young lawyers with an interest in aerospace as they prepare to build successful practices, and help aerospace industry professionals better understand the regulatory and policy implications of their work,” said California Western President and Dean Niels B. Schaumann in welcoming the conference attendees.

“Our second annual Air & Space Law Symposium was an overwhelming success,” said David Cain ’13 of Ballard Spahr LL.P, who co-founded both the Air Law Institute and the Air Law Institute Collaborative Center. “We are honored by the support we received from California Western, the American Bar Association Forum on Air & Space Law, the San Diego Air & Space Museum, and all our sponsors from the aerospace industry and the legal field.”

Manufacturing and flying unmanned aircraft commercially is shaping up to be a multi-billion dollar industry—an industry where the U.S. has a lot of catching up to do with other nations due to restrictive FAA regulations.

“I can fly them on other continents, but I can’t fly them in North America, except over parts of Canada,” said Allen Bishop of Reference Technologies, a company that manufactures UAS. “We’re losing our edge.”

Many nations, particularly in Europe, allow larger UAS to fly, but in the U.S., the laws restrict use of UAS to aircraft less than 55 pounds.

The only large unmanned aircraft flying in the U.S. right now are flown by government agencies such as the Border Patrol and U.S. Coast Guard. Symposium speakers called for new regulations to make commercial use possible.

“If we don’t have the right regulations, the U.S. will cancel itself out of the industry,” said Constantin Diehl, engineering director at Gravity Solutions.

Diehl and Bishop spoke at the first panel of the day, “Small Drones: Operations v. Regulations.”

Among the most important considerations of existing and future legal regulations are air safety and individual privacy rights.

“The Air Law Institute is focused at the nexus of business, law, and engineering,” said Cain. “If we address the problem of unmanned aircraft integration as a united front and consider all angles—not just economic opportunism—we will succeed in safely integrating this revolutionary technology for the benefit of our national economy.”

The commercial and practical applications of UAS range from covering news to fighting fires.

“We had UAVs available to make a significant difference in the recent Colorado wildfires, but we weren’t allowed to fly because of the current law,” said panelist John Huguley of the UAS operations division at Selex Galileo. Huguley left his job as an airline pilot because he “saw the future of unmanned systems.”

What is the future?  It’s safe to say it’s “up in the air.”

Bishop and Huguley are among the advocates who are voicing their input to the FAA on its new proposed regulations on small UAS, unveiled in February 2015.

Featured speakers at the symposium included Dr. Mary Walshok, the associate vice chancellor for public programs and dean of Extension at UC San Diego. Walshok extolled the virtues of San Diego as fertile ground for entrepreneurial enterprise—from defense and security, to technology, internet technology, and sports innovation, to name a few industries that flourish in San Diego.

Another featured speaker was Thella Bowens, CEO of the San Diego Regional Airport Authority. She shared some fascinating facts on the economic impact of San Diego International Airport on the region in terms of revenue generated.

The airport serves 50,000 passengers a day, and Bowen said that every domestic flight that lands in San Diego pumps $20,000 into the local economy, while international flights bring in nearly $89,000 per plane.

The symposium also discussed the issue of space law and commercial space travel—a concept that doesn’t sound so “Buck Rogers” anymore.

On that topic, one major legal question everyone grappled with, according to David Cain, is one so profoundly simple and difficult to answer at the same time: Who owns space?

Questions like that are on the leading edge of what the technological and legal minds who attended the 2015 symposium are answering.

About the Air Law Institute Collaborative Center
The establishment of California Western's Air Law Institute Collaborative Center followed the success of the inaugural Air & Space Law Symposium in 2014. It is a center of excellence in air and space law and will organize the annual symposia. The Air Law Institute and the law school are also exploring offering elective courses in the field of aviation law.