Terminology and Stakeholders

AuthorTimothy M. Ravich
C 2
Terminology and
Until August 2016, when final unmanned aerial system rules went into effect (see
Chapter 9 infra), federal law and corresponding federal aviation regulations
(FARs) did not define the terms drone, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), unmanned aerial
system (UAS), optionally piloted aircraft (OPA), remotely piloted airplane (RPA), remotely
piloted aircraft system (R PAS), or remotely controlled airplane (RC) as a stand- alone cat-
egory of flying machine. With the enact ment of 14 C.F.R. Part 107, the law now defines
several types of drones (though not the term drone itself), including small unmanned
aircraft, small unmanned aircraft system (small UAS), unmanned aircraft (UA), and
unmanned aircraft system (UAS). Fundamentally, an unmanned aircraft is an aircraft
operated without the possibility of direct human intervention from within or on the
aircraft.1 While this definition may seem self- evident, the definition of aircraft— and
the decision to define a drone as a type of aircraft— has been refined over the last several
Broadly speaking, the law has long recognized three general types of conveyances: air-
craft, vehicles, and vessels. “Aircraft,” as defined under the Federal Aviation Act of 1958,
means “any contrivance invented, used, or designed to navigate, or fly in, the air.”2 e
word “‘vessel’ includes every description of watercraft or other artificial contrivance used,
or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water.”3 e word “‘vehicle’
includes every description of carriage or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of
being used, as a means of transportation on land.”4
1 14. C.F.R. § 107.3.
2 49 U.S.C. § 4 0102(a)(6).
4 Id. § 4.
While their legal definitions appear distinctive, aircraft, vehicles, and vessels overlap
operationally. For example, an aircraft could operate on water or on land.5 ese opera-
tional linkages have generated legal controversies over the last century and muddied the
question of whether a drone (which is capable of operating in the air, on the ground, or
on wate r) is an airplan e under the l aw or some oth er type of conveyanc e6a question not
fully resolved until Huerta v. Pirker, discussed in Chapter 3 infra.
As a starting point, an “aircraft” is defined in two primary places. First, as discussed
above, the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 defines an “aircraft” as “any contrivance invented,
used, or designed to navigate, or fly in, the air.”7 FA Rs de fine a n ai rcra ft sl ight ly di ffere ntly,
though not i nconsistently, as “a device that is u sed or intended to be use d for flight in the
air.8 W hether called a “contrivance,” as expressed under the Federal Aviation Act of 1958,
or a “device,” as defined under the FARs, numerous different type of aircraft exist under
5 Each of these conve yances has un ique operational proper ties under law. For example, a pr ovision of the immigr ation laws
makes inad missible to the United States a ny alien who engage s in terrorist activit ies, defined to include “the hi ghjacking
or sabotage of any c onveyance (including an a ircraft, vessel, or vehic le).See 8 U.S.C. § 1182(a)(3)(B)(iii)(I). A customs
law provides defin itions of several words, includ ing vessel and vehicle, and in both of these definitions e xpressly excludes
aircraft. See 19 U.S.C. § 1401(a), (b). A criminal law ma kes it illegal to import or e xport a “motor vehicle . . . , a vessel,
[or] aircraft” know n to have been stolen. See 18 U.S.C. § 553(a)(1). An armed forces provision aut horizes the defense
secretar y to institute a system of re porting to Congres s on the readiness of the a rmed forces, includin g a measurement of
“the extent to which un its of the armed forces remove ser viceable parts, supplie s, or equipment from one vehicle, vessel,
or aircraf t in order to render a different vehicle, ve ssel, or aircraft op erational.” 10 U.S.C. § 117(c)(7). A conservation law
states that a ny individual who traffic s in fish, wildlife, or pla nts in criminal violation of t he endangered species laws i s
subject to forfeitu re of “all vessels, veh icles, aircraf t, and other equipment use d to aid” in the tra fficking of the enda ngered
6 For example, in McB oyle v. United States, 283 U.S. 25 (1931), the Supreme Court of the United State s analyzed and
compared the ter ms vehicle and aircraft to reverse the conviction of a ma n who transporte d a stolen airplane from I llinois
to Oklahoma in v iolation of the National Motor Vehicle ef t Act (NMVTA). e NMV TA defined a “motor vehicle”
as “an automobile, automobile t ruck, automobile wagon, motor cycle, or other s elf- propelled vehicle not desi gned for
running on ra ils.” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes obser ved that “in everyday spee ch ‘vehicle’ calls up the pict ure of a
thing movin g on land,” and that while a irplanes were well k nown by the first quart er of the 20th centur y, Congress had
not apparently intende d at that time to include motor vehicle s that could leave the ear th within the definit ion of “vehi-
cle.” Consequently, the stat ute prohibiting stealin g any “self- propel led vehicle not designed for ru nning on rails” neithe r
extended to “airc raft” nor gave fair wa rning that intersta te transport of stolen ai rcraft was prohibited.
Some 70 years af ter McBoyle v. United States, the Supreme Cou rt of the United States ev aluated the lega l relationship
between an “a ircraft” and a “vehicle” in a po st–September 11, 2001, context. In United States v. Reid, 206 F. Supp. 2d
132 (D. Mass. 2002), Richa rd Reid— t he foiled “shoe bomber” who tried to ignite t he tongue of his sneaker in orde r to
detonate an improved e xplosive device aboard a M iami–Paris com mercial jetliner on Dec ember 22, 2001— successfu lly
moved to dismiss a n indictment aga inst him under the USA PATR IOT Act of 2001 on the basis t hat an airplane wa s not
a “vehicle” engag ed in “mass transport ation.” e district court ag reed that the word vehicle in section 1993 of the USA
PATRIOT Act did not encomp ass an “aircraf t.”
While the USA PATR IOT Act aimed to puni sh terrorism involving “ma ss transport ation vehicles,” Congres s did not
intend to provide addition al punishment for the act of de stroying or attempting to de stroy aircraft. Sepa rate provisions
of federal law a lready made such an act il legal. Section 32 of Title 18, for insta nce, authorized the punis hment of any
individual w ho “willful ly sets fire to, dama ges, destroys, d isables, or wreck s any aircraft i n the special ai rcraft jurisdic tion
of the United States” a nd any individual who “attempts or c onspires” to do the same. us, Cong ress intended to “fill
the gaps” by enact ing the USA PATRIOT Act (e.g., to ensure t hat other modes of transp ortation vulnerable to te rrorist
attack but belie ved to be outside the reach of t he federal crim inal laws came w ithin the reach of t hose laws). Consequently,
Reid’s mischief d id not come within the scope of c onduct prohibited by the USA PATRIOT Act b ecause the airpla ne he
attempted to dest roy was engaged in “mas s transportation” but wa s not a vehicle as defined by Cong ress.
7 49 U.S.C. § 4 0102(a)(6).
8 14 C.F.R . § 1.1.

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