Published in 2021 Northern California Super Lawyers Magazine
By Carlos Harrison on July 2, 2021
It’s a bird. It’s a plane. No, it’s a pilotless urban air vehicle whisking commuters to their destinations.
OK, so not yet. But if that Jetsons-style future ever gets off the ground, it will be thanks in part to people like Sasha Rao, who says the biggest obstacle is not the swiftly developing technology, it’s the law.
“There are probably over 50, probably a hundred companies in the [electric aircraft] space,” says Rao, who practices intellectual property litigation at Maynard, Cooper & Gale in San Francisco. “They’re working on electric propulsion systems; they’re working on either normal takeoff or a vertical takeoff.
“We need to really think about what we as a society want to encourage. And certainly, with climate change and trying to control the causes of pollution, we need to figure out how to make it possible for these other new vehicles to co-exist.”
Among the projects she’s helping get off the ground is a self-piloted, all-electric personal air vehicle from Airbus. Looking like a sleek, oversized drone, the single-seat Vahana (Sanskrit for “vehicle”) lifts off and lands vertically, and has achieved speeds of over 100 mph in test flights.
FAA rules, though, currently tend to focus on human pilots. The agency is still working out where self-piloted vehicles would fit in. Airspace regulations rely on human air traffic controllers talking to human pilots. The already strained system will be hard-pressed to deal with what Rao sees as an exponential growth in aircraft guided by artificial intelligence. And local regulations establishing clearances for physical “vertiports” still need, in most places, to be written.
“You have to rethink product liability law, for example,” Rao says. “Most of the vehicle regulations right now are set up on a sort of driver-negligence type system because the driver’s behind the wheel, and they pretty much have control of the vehicle. But when you move to a different system, then you have to rethink, ‘Well, is it going to be a strict liability system?’”
Rao focuses on just those kinds of issues, where the law intersects a brave new world of drones and self-guided commuter aircraft; novel pharmaceuticals and biotechnologies; artificial intelligence and robotics. She’s chair of her firm’s nationwide IP practice, with clients across the technological spectrum. As different as Airbus and Airbnb may seem, she says, they share a common principle.
“They’re all pushing the boundaries of science, right? Airbnb, while it seems like just a platform for people to rent places, it’s actually a lot more sophisticated than that. They use a lot of artificial intelligence in their platform,” she says. “They are one of the largest employers of artificial intelligence engineers in the Bay area.”
But, she insists, even as the technologies and laws change, the basic principles remain the same.
“I don’t care if the patent is about a potato chip or a semiconductor chip,” she says. “You need to figure out how to make the best argument given the framework of the law and your facts. And by dealing with different technology areas, you kind of get good at adapting some of the techniques from one kind of industry to another.”
As a child in Bangalore, India, Sasha Rao dreamed of becoming a pilot, but her vision was too poor. So she switched to science, because, she says, “In India, typically, you’re encouraged to go into engineering or medicine. Nobody really thinks of law as an option.”
She majored in physics. An internship where she was “running the same experiment for two months every single day to see if the results are repeatable” changed her mind. “I was quite bored by the repetition and I thought, ‘Well, surely there’s a better way to use my skills.’”
So Rao applied to law school, where her science background led her to intellectual property. She got hired straight out of NYU by Fish & Neave, the IP firm that represented Alexander Graham Bell and the Wright brothers. Then her firm was acquired by Ropes & Gray; and she ended up, in 2014, at Maynard Cooper.
“From the beginning, I wanted to get as much experience as possible doing different things. So I never said no to a project,” she says. “I wanted to represent the companies of tomorrow.”