Friday, February 08, 2013

Drone dilemmas

Idaho's stand when it comes to unmanned drones seems to be a little up in the air.

Two measures regarding drones came out of the Idaho Legislature this week. On Wednesday, the Idaho Senate approved a resolution encouraging the state to apply to become one of six drone test sites to be operated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Sponsored by Republican Sen. Chuck Winder, a former Navy pilot from Boise, that bill passed 28-6.

The next day the Senate Transportation Committee approved a revised version of a bill that establishes guidelines governing when Idaho law enforcement agencies send out unmanned aircraft to gather criminal evidence.

The bill approved Thursday differs slightly from the version that won initial approval last month.

The measure was modified to give Idaho Power and other companies an exemption that allows them to conduct surveillance without getting any official permission.

Transportation Committee member, Winder, R-Boise, was involved in this bill as well. He said the intent of the legislation is to protect landowners’ privacy.

The legislation requires police to establish probable cause or get a judicial warrant before using drones in criminal investigations.

That bill became a companion to the Senate resolution passed Wednesday encouraging the state to become a drone testing site.

The Winder-sponsored pro-drone bill that passed the Senate will now go to the House. Winder said securing the state as a drone testing site could be a boost to Idaho’s economy.

Opponents including Boise Democratic Sen. Les Bock raised privacy concerns, saying they were uneasy with the specter of unmanned aircraft spying on residents.

But Sen. Marv Hagedorn, a Meridian Republican, said privacy concerns would be addressed by the bill establishing clear legal guidelines for when Idaho law enforcement agencies could use unmanned aircraft.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is in the process of selecting six sites nationwide for unmanned aircraft systems testing. Unmanned Aircraft Systems — previously referred to as "unmanned aerial vehicles" — come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and serve many purposes. They may have a wingspan as large as a Boeing 737 or smaller than a radio-controlled model airplane, according to the FAA website that describes the testing project.

The project itself is to test drones equipped to improve air traffic alert and collision avoidance systems. A description of the project from the FAA states it would “allow a government public safety agency to operate unmanned aircraft weighing 4.4 pounds or less” under certain restrictions.

These restrictions include flying the drones within the line of sight of the operator, less than 400 feet above the ground, during daylight conditions in controlled air space at least five miles from an existing airport.

According to the Associated Press, at least 11 states are proposing restrictions on the use of drones over their skies because of growing public concerns that the unmanned aerial vehicles could be used to spy on Americans.

Congress has taken steps to regulate domestic drone use. When it reauthorized the FAA in 2012, Congress told the agency it had to craft a comprehensive plan for the use of drones in U.S. skies by 2015.


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