CINCINNATI — Thousands of civilian drones are expected in U.S. skies within a few years and concerns they could be used to spy on Americans are fueling legislative efforts in several states to regulate the unmanned aircraft.
Varied legislation involving drones was introduced this year in more than 40 states, including Ohio. Many of those bills seek to regulate law enforcement’s use of information-gathering drones by requiring search warrants. Some bills have stalled or are still pending, but at least six states now require warrants, and Virginia has put a two-year moratorium on drone use by law enforcement to provide more time to develop guidelines.
Domestic drones often resemble the small radio-controlled model airplanes and helicopters flown by hobbyists and can help monitor floods and other emergencies, survey crops and assist search-and-rescue operations. But privacy advocates are worried because the aircraft can also carry cameras and other equipment to capture images of people and property.
“Right now police can’t come into your house without a search warrant,” said Ohio Rep. Rex Damschroder, who has proposed drone regulations. “But with drones, they can come right over your backyard and take pictures.”
Since 2006, the Federal Aviation Administration has approved more than 1,400 requests for drone use from government agencies and public universities wanting to operate the unmanned aircraft for purposes including research and public safety. Since 2008, approval had been granted to at least 80 law enforcement agencies.
But the FAA estimates that as many as 7,500 small commercial unmanned aircraft could be operating domestically within the next few years. A federal law enacted last year requires the FAA to develop a plan for safely integrating the aircraft into U.S. airspace by September 2015.
Damschroder’s proposed bill would prohibit law enforcement agencies from using drones to get evidence or other information without a search warrant. Exceptions would include credible risks of terrorist attacks or the need for swift action to prevent imminent harm to life or property or to prevent suspects from escaping or destroying evidence.
The Republican said he isn’t against drones but worries they could threaten constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.
“I don’t want the government just going up and down every street snooping,” Damschroder said.
The Ohio House speaker’s office says it’s too soon to comment on the chances for passage. But similar legislation has been enacted in Florida, Tennessee, Idaho, Montana, Texas and Oregon.
The sponsor of Tennessee’s bill said the law was necessary to ensure that residents can maintain their right to privacy.
“Abuses of privacy rights that we have been seeing from law enforcement recently show a need for this legislation,” said Republican Sen. Mae Beavers.
Beavers and Damschroder modeled their bills after one signed into law this year by Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who said then that “we shouldn’t have unwarranted surveillance.”
But the industry’s professional association says regulating law enforcement’s use of unmanned aircraft is unnecessary and shortsighted. It wants guidelines covering manned aircraft applied to unmanned aircraft.
“We don’t support rewriting existing search warrant requirements under the guise of privacy,” said Mario Mairena, government relations manager for the Arlington, Va.-based Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
The association predicts unmanned aircraft systems will generate billions of dollars in economic impact in the next few years and says privacy concerns are unwarranted.
In Maine, Gov. Paul LePage vetoed the state’s drone-regulating legislation, saying “this bill steps too far” and would lead to lawsuits and harm Maine’s opportunities for new aerospace jobs. He plans to establish guidelines allowing legitimate uses while protecting privacy.
The American Civil Liberties Union supports legislation to regulate drone use and require search warrants, but it would also like weapons banned from domestic drones and limits on how long drone-collected data could be kept, said Melissa Bilancini, an ACLU of Ohio staff attorney.
In North Dakota, Rep. Rick Becker’s bill to ban weapons from drones and require search warrants failed, but the Republican says he plans to try again because “we must address these privacy concerns.”
Democratic Rep. Ed Gruchalla, formerly in law enforcement, opposed Becker’s bill out of concern it would restrict police from effectively using drones.
“We are familiar with drones in North Dakota, and I don’t know of any abuses or complaints,” he said.
Drones can be as small as a bird or have a wingspan as large as a Boeing 737, but a program manager with the International Association of Chiefs of Police says most law enforcement agencies considering unmanned aircraft are looking at ones weighing around 2 pounds that only fly for about 15 minutes.
“They can be carried in the back of a car and put up quickly for an aerial view of a situation without putting humans at risk,” Mike Fergus said, adding that they aren’t suited for surveillance.
Medina County Sheriff Tom Miller in northeast Ohio says his office’s 2-pound drone is intended primarily for search-and-rescue operations and wouldn’t be used to collect evidence without a warrant.
Cincinnati resident Dwan Stone, 50, doesn’t have a problem with some limits.
“But I don’t oppose drones if there is a good reason for using them,” she said.
Chase Jeffries, 19, also of Cincinnati, opposes them.
“I don’t want the government being able to use drones to spy on people,” he said.