State Legislation, FAA Leave Drone Use Grounded
by Mary Branham, CSG Managing Editor
It might look like fun and games, but when Robert Blair launches the remote-controlled plane over his 1,500 acre Idaho farm, he’s
really hard at work.
Unmanned aircraft systems—previously called unmanned aerial vehicles and what some people refer to as drones—are the newest technology helping farmers, law enforcement and state officials, among others, do their jobs more efficiently and, in some cases, more effectively.
Blair, for instance, can cut hours off the time it takes to scout his crops, and he often gets a better picture of what’s going on from the images his aircraft collects.
“Some of the changes in the field are very subtle, so that as you’re walking through them, you can’t see them from the ground, whereas from the air you can,” he said.
Blair owns his own drone and can use it to survey his fields, but he can’t help a neighbor. That’s because the Federal Aviation Administration hasn’t yet integrated drones into U.S. airspace and restricts commercial use. That will change in 2015 when U.S. airspace is opened to unmanned aerial vehicles flying commercially. Before that happens, the FAA is looking for six pilot sites to test drones for commercial use.
Idaho is one state applying to be a test site.
Sen. Chuck Winder, a former Navy pilot, sponsored the resolution supporting the state’s bid to be an FAA test site. Idaho, because of its open spaces and small population, would be a good test spot, he said.
“We also knew, because of people’s apprehension about unmanned aircraft and how they might be used, we also need to deal with the privacy issues involved in it,” Winder said.
He co-sponsored legislation prohibiting law enforcement from using drones to conduct investigations without a search warrant. The House and Senate approved the legislation, and Gov. Butch Otter signed it in April, making Idaho the first state with such a law.
But Idaho isn’t the only state considering the issue of privacy.
Several other states have considered similar legislation, and Virginia passed a two-year moratorium on the use of drones for law enforcement.
“Technology has far outpaced the laws of the land,” said Alaska Rep. Scott Kawasaki, who sponsored legislation to limit law enforcement’s use of the technology in his state. “We should be secure in our own home without the threat of being constantly monitored.”
But Capt. Don Roby of the Baltimore County, Md., Police Department said current state and federal laws protect against the unlawful use of unmanned aircraft systems for surveillance.
“If we’re in a constitutionally protected area with the use of unmanned aircraft systems, more than likely we’re going to need a search warrant to use it,” he said.
Besides, he said, current technology doesn’t allow for constant surveillance.
“Everything right now is line of sight,” he said. “It would be obvious we would be following you with these devices.”
The International Association of Chiefs of Police, for which Roby serves as chair of the Aviation Committee, has issued guidelines for use of these aircraft by law enforcement. Roby thinks part of the problem is one of perception; many people think of the military drones that have been in the news of late.
In fact, Roby and Blair both chafe at references to unmanned aircraft systems as drones for that very reason. The ones to which they are referring are nothing like those that the military uses. Roby said the devices offer so many beneficial uses that the focus on privacy issues for law enforcement detracts from their use for the greater good.
Police agencies can and have used them for search and rescue missions and for evaluating a scene before a SWAT team enters an area.
Kawasaki sees the benefits of the technology, especially in his state. People in Alaska have used these systems to track wildlife migration patterns because the state is so remote, to guide sea vessels to areas in which an icebreaker is needed and in wildfires to prevent the need for a piloted aircraft to fly through the smoke.
“There are some real good, positive applications for using drones,” Kawasaki said. “At the same time, the technology is increasing so quickly that systems are getting more and more advanced that we can’t forget our constitutional right to privacy.”
The Alaska legislature adopted a resolution to create a legislative Task Force on Unmanned Aircraft Systems to review FAA regulations on drones and develop recommendations and legislation that “protects privacy and allows (for) the use of unmanned aircraft systems for public and private applications.”
It’s a fine line that policymakers must walk, and that’s one reason Winder and Kawasaki hope their states are selected as FAA test sites; 24 states have applied to be test sites, according to the FAA website.
Dev Shrestha, an associate professor at the University of Idaho who does research in agriculture, said the technology offers many benefits for farmers as well as for the consumers of products grown on farms.
He said farmers often fertilize fields uniformly, often in places where it is not needed. Unmanned aircraft systems help farmers better target their fertilizer and reduce downstream pollution. In addition, unmanned aircraft use less energy than a large aircraft doing the same job.
Shrestha said to quantify something—like the amount of fertilizer or water needed in a field—you have to measure it. These unmanned aircraft systems, he said, can provide the quickest information, at a lower cost, in that regard.
“The most critical stage of the crop is when it is actually growing and knowing what’s going on in the field is the first step,” Shrestha said.
Many people worry state laws and the FAA will build a wall that stalls full development and use of the UAV technology. Blair and Roby, among others, would like to see all the potential stakeholders at the table to discuss the concerns and benefits of the technology.
“It’s important for our legislators to have vision to help create an industry instead of shutting it off before it even begins,” Blair said. “There has to be balance between common sense and not crossing a line with personal rights.”
As for Roby, he’d like to make sure the technology has a chance to develop.
“One of the concerns we have is that we’re going to basically stifle this technology and the use of these devices before it has a chance—no pun intended—to take off,” he said.