Known most commonly as drones, the emerging technology of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, will soon see widespread commercial use in the United States. In response, states across the nation are scrambling to craft legislation to regulate how UAVs can and can’t operate within their borders.
In North Carolina, where a bill about UAVs was introduced but died in the state legislature last year, a special House committee convened in recent months to recommend a new approach. The 11-member Committee on Unmanned Aircraft Systems held the last of its four meetings on April 23, at which it altered and approved proposed legislation on the matter.
The proposal would prohibit state and local law agencies from using UAVs for surveillance of individuals without a warrant, in most cases. It also listed several exceptions relating to potential terrorist incidents and other situations.
The proposed law and a summary of the committee’s meetings can be read in the document below.
Balancing privacy, free speech, other concerns
The Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates the nation’s airspace, has said that it plans to approve at least some commercial uses of UAVs in late 2015. In the past year, dozens of states have responded by passing laws and resolutions to regulate the use the aircraft, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
At last week’s meeting, it was clear that N.C. legislators are still struggling to define just which UAV considerations should be the subject of state law, especially in light of the state’s potential to build a robust new industry surrounding the technology.
Committee co-chair Rep. John Torbett, a Gaston County Republican who is vice president of Defense Technologies Inc., a defense contractor that specializes in developing software for unmanned weapons systems, led the meeting and noted some of the tensions.
“There is a line, and the line is not a clear line of definition, between what currently goes on and now we have the introduction of UAV,” he said. “The hope would be that we don’t limit or prevent a market from existing in North Carolina, but think of a UAV as simply an additional tool.
“We’re trying to just address it to the point that it provides privacy for an individual and allows the market to develop and to grow. That’s where this committee has got to draw that line.”
Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat who is a retired communications attorney, noted other potential issues involving the media and free speech. “I do think there are First Amendment issues here, in addition to the concerns about privacy,” she said.
Harrison introduced an amendment, which was later adopted, to the committee’s draft of the proposed legislation. It would strip some of the proposed restrictions on state agencies and law enforcement using UAVs for surveillance from private parties using the same technology.
Rep. Chris Whitmire, a Transylvania County Republican who is a military veteran, pilot and realtor, said he wanted to be sure that no private operators use UAVs to monitor agricultural facilities. Animal-rights and environmental groups have occasionally used the devices to draw attention to alleged improper practices at factory farms.
“For those who choose to maybe exploit potential use of drones in improper ways, such as, maybe, take an extremist group that wants to look at and place false accusations on, like, a farm,” he said. “If we didn’t address individuals here, would we not be basically allowing extremist groups to exploit a new means of doing that?”
On that matter, the committee’s proposed bill includes language largely prohibiting any entity, state or private, from using UAVs to surveil “a farm, dairy, ranch or other agricultural industry without the written consent of the owner.”
Buncombe County Republican Rep. Tim Moffitt, who co-sponsored last year’s bill and has been an outspoken proponent of maintaining privacy protections regarding use of UAVs, had an additional concern — that amateur operators of the aircraft would face too strong of a sanction on their first offense.
“A lot of hobbyists unintentionally create businesses while they are pursuing their hobby,” he said. “And I did not want a hobbyist who actually moved into commercial operation to be guilty of a Class 3 misdemeanor.”
Moffitt offered an amendment, which was incorporated into the proposed bill, that scales back the potential punishment for private users of UAVs who run afoul of the law for the first time.
ACLU responds with guarded optimism
The proposed legislation will now move to the General Assembly’s Legislative Research Commission, and from there to judicial committees. Its backers hope it will be taken up and passed during the GA’s upcoming short session, which starts May 14.
Sarah Preston, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, said that she’s glad her group, which testified at an earlier session of the committee, has been able to offer input.
“What we’re happy to see with the committee is that they are taking privacy concerns seriously, and discussing government surveillance and how drones might factor into that,” she told Carolina Public Press.
At the same time, regarding the proposed new law, “We have concerns about some of the exceptions (for law enforcement), which we think may be too broad,” she said.
Preston also lamented that the General Assembly has moved so fast to craft legislation on a matter as complex and unprecedented as UAVs.
“The reality is is that drones are just different,” she said. “They can hover in a way that helicopters can’t. They’re smaller and can be virtually noiseless. So you wouldn’t even know they’re there.”