Drones in the workplace


By Charles S. Plumb

It’s time to deal with the use of drones in the workplace. Sound farfetched? Not if you are paying attention to what is going on around you. Drones have landed on the White House lawn, on football fields during college games, and inside multiple prison facilities. It is estimated that more than one million drones will be found under the Christmas tree this holiday. Remote control aerial devices, frequently matched with a video camera providing live feeds and recordings of events and locations, offer unparalleled access and the ability to monitor people and activities and to gather information. At the same time, rapidly advancing technology combined with decreasing prices put sophisticated drones in the hands of more and more people.

Current law and uses of drones

From a federal law standpoint, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is developing regulations that will control the commercial use of remote aerial devices. In the meantime, companies wishing to use drones commercially must apply with the FAA for a certificate of exemption. A commercial drone must be operated by a licensed airplane pilot and must at all times remain in sight of the operator. Common commercial uses of drones include agriculture, real estate, construction, security and surveillance of people and of premises.

Effective December 21, 2015, owners of recreational drones weighing between 0.55 pounds and 55 pounds must register with the FAA using an online form. Registration costs $5 per person, but the fee will be waived during the first 30 days in order to encourage registration. You can access the FAA’s registration site here: www.faa.gov/uas/registration.

Originally, drone laws around the country were nonexistent. Recently, however, states have gotten into the act, and a patchwork system of state-based drone laws is beginning to grow.

We always encourage employers to think ahead and behave proactively, and addressing drones in the workplace is no exception. Here are some practical suggestions:

Control your premises

Consider and define your “premises” in their most broad sense. “Premises” include not only your building and the space contained inside; it includes parking areas, green spaces, remote worksites, etc., as well as the airspace above these locations. Your policy should expressly prohibit any unauthorized drones from your premises. Obviously, this prohibition would apply to drones owned and operated by third parties. But it would also exclude from the workplace drones personally owned by an employee, unless and until its presence and usage was specifically approved by the employer. Employees should understand that the presence of unauthorized or unknown drones must be reported to the employer.If employer-owned drones are used in the workplace, restrict and control how they are being used and by whom. Information obtained from a remote aerial device may be treated as confidential.

Drone use in the employment context

More and more, employers are using drones on a regular basis to monitor their properties and employees. Examples include:

  • Surveilling employees suspected of theft or misappropriation of confidential information;
  • Monitoring employees’ performance or productivity; and
  • Protecting against unauthorized use of or damage to the employer’s property.

Don’t forget that employee monitoring of any type can lead to claims of discrimination and/or harassment. Like video surveillance cameras, an employer monitoring by way of a drone can lead to invasion of privacy accusations. If you use drones for surveillance and monitoring – particularly if information you gain may factor into making employment decisions – provide explicit notice to your workforce and guests that they are subject to drone surveillance and monitoring while on your premises. In the case of employees, you should obtain their express, written consent to such monitoring. That way, employees cannot claim they were surprised by the monitoring or had any expectation of privacy.