States join battle over drone flights

The nascent drone industry is coming under threat from lawmakers on Capitol Hill and in state legislatures who are weighing restrictions on their use in the United States.

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Eighteen states have considered bills that would limit the use of unmanned aerial systems, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and more are likely to follow suit.

In Washington, meanwhile, lawmakers are pushing for new civil liberties and privacy protections to ease fears about invasive surveillance from the skies.

Manufacturers of unmanned aerial systems say there is vast potential for police departments and law enforcement officials to use drones in their work. But the idea is being met with strong resistance in some states, including Virginia, which last week sent a bill to Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) that would create a two-year moratorium on police work with unmanned aircraft.

Several states — including California, Florida, New Jersey, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas and Missouri — are considering a moratorium similar to Virginia’s.

The drone industry fears lawmakers will enact overly restrictive regulations that prevent law enforcement from taking advantage of the technology.

“It would really deny law enforcement agencies this extra tool they can use to do their jobs more efficiently and effectively,” said Gretchen West, the executive vice president of Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), “They're not just used arbitrarily, they are used for specific missions.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) encouraged the passage of the moratorium in Virginia, and hopes other state-level actions will put pressure on Congress to act.

“There has been an organic interest in regulating these things,” said Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the ACLU. “State-level legislation always helps spur federal action, but we've already seen independent interest in doing this at the federal level.”

Congress approved legislation last year that ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to begin the process of opening U.S. airspace to more drone flights. The agency moved Thursday to create six test sites around the country, and also put forward a draft plan for privacy protections at the sites.

West said the privacy push is misguided. Unmanned aircraft, she said, “shouldn't be singled out as more dangerous” than the airplanes and helicopters that have long been used in police work.

But a number of lawmakers on Capitol Hill disagree.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) last month said drones “could pose a significant threat to the privacy and civil liberties of millions of American,” and he has put the issue on his committee’s agenda for the year.

“We make a tragic mistake thinking that merely giving up more and more of our privacy will make us safer. It will not. Security and liberty are both essential in a free society, and we cannot forsake one for the other,” Leahy said in a speech at Georgetown University.

Officials with AUVSI, the largest trade group for unmanned aircraft companies, are reaching out to lawmakers to correct what they say are misperceptions about the capabilities of drones. Fears about an Orwellian police state, they say, are overblown.

“They're not capable of persistent surveillance,” West said.

“We’ve been very active on Capitol Hill to try and talk to lawmakers to make sure they understand the benefits of the technology,” West said. “If there does need to be some sort of legislation, we need to make sure it's the right legislation that wouldn't unnecessarily restrict the use of this technology and its benefits.”

West said she doesn’t use the word “drone” when talking about the domestic variety because it only feeds the idea that the military versions of the aircraft are coming to America.

“There really is a sensationalism connected to the word ‘drone,’ so we don't use it,” she said.

The FAA has been issuing permits for some unmanned aircraft to select private individuals and public agencies — such as law enforcement — since 2008.

The unmanned systems that are being used by law enforcement, West said, weigh an average of 25 pounds and only have 30 minutes to an hour of flight time. The cost is a fraction of what a police department would pay for a helicopter.

West said the FAA puts requirements on how the domestic unmanned aerial systems can be used. They may not be flown more than 400 feet in the air, for example, or out of the operator's line of sight.

The drone industry says the FAA permits are difficult to obtain and wants the process to be streamlined, but an electronic privacy group says the FAA needs to toughen the regulations.

“As drone licenses become more common, the FAA needs to bake in provisions for privacy and accountability,” said Amie Stepanovich, the associate legal counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). “AUVSI put forward some voluntary guidelines for drone operators saying they have to respect privacy,” she adds, “but they are not sufficient to address the threat drones pose. Privacy is mentioned only one time, and it's not a clear standard.”

Several court cases have upheld law enforcement agencies’ rights to aerially surveil citizens, but privacy advocates say drone flights will reopen the debate.

“Drones are going to cause people to take on a privacy renaissance,” Stepanovich said. “They're going to want to take their privacy back.”