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Drones, robots and attorneys in Utah: sorting out rights and responsibilities

Do robots have rights? If a robot is reading your email, is that spying? These are just two examples of questions raised at the annual We Robot conference in Miami this month. Attended by experts in law, technology and policy the conference is a gathering place and medium through which “makers and thinkers” can plan for future industry and policy, according to this piece aired by Utah Public Radio. Utah has established itself as a leader in technological infrastructure and development, and attorneys in Utah aren’t surprised to learn of the interest in drone and robot technology being tested and industrialized in their home state -which makes the contents of the We Robot conference pretty pertinent for legal practices.

The event’s founder, Michael Froomkin, is a law professor at the University of Miami and reports that he has “seen technology outpace the law countless times.” With a hint that Nevada would be a designated drone testing ground, some of the firms in silver state are revving up to incorporate drone law more heavily into their practices, but attorneys in Utah may not have that competitive edge. The theme of this year’s conference, risks and opportunities, is apt.

While the event’s research and academic paper submissions ranged from the seemingly bizarre and implausible (such as the possibility for robots to serve as judges), other submissions were more relevant and examined legal implications and potential statutes needed for drones flying in national airspace. Donna Dulo, a presenter at the conference with experience as a senior mathematician and computer scientist with the Department of Defense, wrote that the future is dependent on drone safety, autonomy and legality. Attorneys in Utah understand Dulo’s urgency to be proactive about laws as a prevention against catastrophic accidents that could result if legislators delay evidence-based lawmaking.

Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration is planning to allow commercial use of drones in 2015 and has approved six testing sites, one of them Nevada, Utah’s neighbor. But Dulo cautions that it’s beyond basic FAA rules. Lest drones outpace laws, legislators should consider the ways in which the industry will develop: “Facebook wants to put these things in the sky to create a wireless cloud around the globe. Amazon wants to use them to deliver packages.”

But the excitement of the cool new tricks turned by the consumer-driven industries is only one part of what’s next. Unanswered questions hinge on how to prevent collisions, who bears responsibilities for accidents and what kinds of charges accidents would bring—questions that have already begun to be asked in countries like Australia over the past several days.

Attorneys in Utah could encounter cases of liability, market representation and privacy disputes, among others. “You design stuff to make it work and you don’t think a lot about the legal and social consequences,” Froomkin comments. Innovation and invention push technology forward, impacting the pace and quality of life for its consumers. The lawyers are just concerned with how the legal loose ends of that quality of life will get tied up, because as Dulo has pointed out, the drones are upon us.

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