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Lawmakers homing in on new laws that regulate use of drones by law enforcement and individuals

by Carolyn Orr ~ April 2014 ~ Stateline Midwest »
Amazon wants to use a drone to deliver your new jacket, and a beer company thinks unmanned aircraft systems are perfect for deliveries to remote Minnesota lakes. But at the same time, hunters and anglers in downstate Illinois are concerned that animal-rights activists will use drones with cameras to interfere with their sport.
Drones are still most known for their use by the U.S. military, but they are beginning to get more attention from state legislators and others who set domestic policy.
The recent activity in Illinois is a case in point.
As state Rep. Norine Hammond describes it, some rural constituents voiced concerns to her about plans by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to use what it called “air angels”: drones that could be deployed to let “hunters know that someone may be watching —and recording — them” and that could expose “hunters’ dirty secrets.”
Illinois lawmakers responded to those concerns by passing HB 1652, a first-of-its-kind bill that regulates drone use by individuals. Under the new law, it is now a Class A misdemeanor in Illinois to use a drone in a way that “interferes with another person’s lawful taking of wildlife or aquatic life.”
Support for the bill, Hammond says, “cut across both sides of the aisle.”
Last year, too, Illinois SB 1587 was signed into law. It sets new rules and limits on the use of drones by law enforcement. For example, the new law requires police to demonstrate probable cause and obtain a warrant before using unmanned surveillance aircraft. Exemptions to the warrant requirement include filming traffic accidents, crime scenes on public property and searches for missing persons.
“I want Illinois to take a proactive approach,” Sen. Daniel Biss, the bill’s sponsor, said upon its passage, “recognizing that drones can make police work more efficient and keep officers out of harm’s way, but also acknowledging the potential threat they pose to individual liberties.”
Illinois’ new law also limits the retention and sharing of information collected by unmanned surveillance aircraft and requires police departments to disclose the number of drones they have.
Thus far, state activity across the Midwest and country has focused mostly on concerns about drones’ use by law enforcement. In all, 45 states have introduced legislation to regulate such activity; Illinois is one of the first U.S. states where such a measure became law.
Future of drones and public policy
State legislators and their constituents, though, see a positive side to the rise in drones as well. For example, while hunters and farmers may be concerned with private surveillance of their activities, drones could also help agricultural producers decrease costs and improve production when used to fly over fields to improve spraying precision or to monitor crop growth and animal health.
Sen. Biss, too, noted that drones have the potential to make “legitimate contributions ... to public safety.”
In North Dakota, legislators jumped on the prospect of the state becoming a test site for Federal Aviation Administration unmanned- aircraft systems. With SB 2018, they authorized spending $1 million to pursue such a designation. The same bill also provided $4 million to operate the site. North Dakota has since been chosen as one of six research sites.
“Legislators felt that constituents were already protected from illegal surveillance by the Fourth Amendment,” North Dakota Sen. Robert Erbele says. “We were more interested in the economic activity that could grow from drone research.”
Also in 2013, Michigan legislators passed a resolution (HR 280) recognizing the future benefits of the drone industry.
State interest in the issue is only likely to continue considering this 2012 estimate by the FAA — by the end of the decade, as many as 30,000 drones could be flying in American skies.
When it comes to public policy on drones, states have been most active on issues related to privacy and civil liberties.
At the federal level, much of the focus has been on FAA safety regulations for the fledgling drone industry. In 1981 and again in 2007, the FAA issued policy notices limiting the use of unmanned aircraft to hobbyists.
The federal agency has said, too, that guidelines must be established before it will allow the commercial use of drones. The U.S. Congress has ordered the FAA to provide such guidance for private drones by 2015.
But in March, a National Traffic Safety Board administrative law judge ruled that the FAA’s previous policy notices “weren’t enforceable because they hadn’t been written as part of a formal rulemaking process.” The ruling appears to make it legal for drones to fly under 400 feet for any purpose. The judge’s ruling doesn’t apply to larger drones that share airspace with helicopters and planes.