Regulating Drones

One consistent aspect of law is that it usually reflects the conditions of society as a whole. In the case of H.3510, the condition addressed by this proposed bill is that of unmanned aircrafts, also known as drones. The overall objective of this lengthy bill is to make it unlawful to operate a ‘public unmanned aircraft system.’ There are exceptions, however.

State agencies having jurisdiction over criminal law enforcement may employ an unmanned aircraft system given the approval of the General Assembly. Local law enforcement agencies must obtain consent from the governing body of the locality.

Upon issuing an administrative search warrant, a judicial officer whose territorial jurisdiction encompasses the area to be inspected may authorize the operation of an unmanned aircraft for the purpose of collecting and disclosing personal information

Public institutions of higher education are permitted to use unmanned aircrafts for the purpose of conducting research as long as no personal information collected is used as evidence before a court.

A significant portion of the bill is dedicated to defining all terms relevant to the operation of unmanned aircraft systems. Among the most important term defined is ‘personal information.’ The bill classifies information that is personal if it “describes, locates, or indexes anything about a person including, but not limited to, his social security number, driver’s license number, agency-issued identification number, student identification number, real or personal property holdings derived from tax returns, and his education, financial transactions, medical history, ancestry, religion, political ideology, or criminal or employment record.”

The bill does require that all records and data obtained from each use of a public unmanned aircraft system, excluding personally identifiable information, be open to public disclosure pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act. Further, at the end of each year the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the director of SLED, and the Governor must submit a complete report to the General Assembly concerning the number of applications for search warrants authorizing unmanned aircrafts.

This bill may be well intentioned but many of its regulations on drone use are aimed at the wrong actors. A bill filed last session (S.395 covered on page 21 of 2013’s Best and Worst) restricted its regulations to state agencies, prohibiting agencies from using drones equipped with anti-personal devices (weapons), and from using drones to conduct searches without a warrant. Unlike this bill, S.395 did not include a blanket prohibition of private individuals’ use of drones. There is no problem with having laws to protect privacy from private citizens misusing drones, but a blanket prohibition on use may deprive consumers of potential services that could be provided by businesses via the use of drones.

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