Drones Emerge As a New Issue for CPA Firms

October 20, 2016

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The American Institute of CPAs’ (AICPA) State Regulation and Legislation Team is working in collaboration with state CPA societies to monitor trends in an emerging area of state legislation: drones.

Unmanned aircraft systems, commonly referred to as drones, have a wide range of commercial applications, including law enforcement and rescue operations.  However, for the past several years, commercial drone usage for CPAs has been mostly limited to larger firms due to the strict regulatory structure surrounding drone operations in the United States.

But on August 29, a new FAA rule took effect that broadly authorizes commercial drone operations in the United States, vastly opening up the potential for drone operations and lowering the cost of entry for CPA firms looking to adapt their audit and inspection processes.  For example, it is now easier for firms to use drones to aid in monitoring infrastructure for defects and assessing large geographical areas.  There are many commercial applications for drones, but inspections of large scale physical assets are one of the biggest market opportunities.  PwC, for example, estimates the global market for infrastructure inspection and agricultural surveys alone to exceed $77 billion, and the firm has already set up a global drone headquarters in Poland with the intention to bring the services around the world.

Even with the expanded FAA rules, CPA firms should be mindful of state laws, as the rising interest in commercial drones has increased state-level regulation and legislation related to their use.

Thus far, 32 states have enacted laws related to drones and five have adopted resolutions.  In 2016 alone, Alaska and Delaware adopted resolutions to support the emerging drone industry and increased economic opportunities within the FAA framework, Illinois developed a task force to study drones, and several states – such as Rhode Island and Virginia – passed legislation that prohibits localities from regulating drones, leaving exclusive regulatory authority to the state.

While states are often supportive of the industry development, many are also passing more restrictive legislation to address concerns about public safety.  For example, Delaware made it unlawful to use a drone in the commission of a crime, and Utah made it a third degree felony if a drone crashes into a manned aircraft.

Despite the remaining regulatory obstacles, the commercial drone industry continues to grow, and CPA firms will likely see expanded use of drones in commercial operations, as well as state-level legislation, in 2017.

For more information, contact the State Regulation and Legislation Team at state@aicpa.org.