Point of view

Act quickly to regulate drones in North Carolina

April 22, 2014 

  • House Committee

    What: Final meeting on Unmanned Aircraft Systems, chaired by Rep. Mitchell Setzer (R-Catawba) and Rep. John A. Torbett (R-Gaston).

    When: 1 p.m. today

    Where: N.C. General Assembly, Room 1228/1327 LB

North Carolina is at the center of a national debate about how the government should best approach the new and growing industry of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles. Today, a state legislative committee is expected to announce a proposal to regulate drones, which a current budget provision prevents most government agencies from using without special permission until July 2015.

As representatives of a civil liberties organization and a company that develops drone technology, we urge the committee and the legislature to embrace an approach that will neither discourage the growth of this industry in our state nor allow the government to use drones to violate the privacy rights of North Carolinians.

For both the government and the private sector, drones – which are cheaper and require less maintenance than conventional helicopters – can provide entirely new capabilities in a still growing range of uses: 911 and emergency response, agriculture, journalism, TV & film production, infrastructure inspection, pollution monitoring, disaster management, search and rescue, coastal patrol and swimmer safety.

HB 312 or the Preserving Privacy Act of 2013, a bipartisan bill introduced in the General Assembly last year, would allow the development of drone technology for all of these purposes – but also would erect safeguards so drones won’t be abused to wrongfully target or monitor North Carolinians without just cause. The bill would require individuals and government agencies, including law enforcement, to obtain a warrant showing probable cause of criminal activity before using a drone to gather information on an individual – something a recent poll showed 72 percent of North Carolina voters believe should be the law.

But national polls also show the majority of voters support the use of drones in commercial applications and in emergency response. HB 312 allows the government to use drones for purposes other than gathering evidence and includes exceptions for law enforcement to use a drone to conduct searches if the agency possesses “reasonable suspicion” that immediate action is necessary to prevent certain types of immediate harm. These exceptions allow law enforcement to more quickly respond to calls for help where there is a threat to life or property and create protocols for properly handling evidence. The bill permits drones to do less at 400 feet altitude than what manned helicopters currently do every day legally at 500 feet altitude. As representatives of two different perspectives in the drone debate, we agree that HB 312 strikes the right balance for the industry and privacy alike.

Both the ACLU of North Carolina and Olaeris have testified before the committee, and, despite being sometimes depicted as opponents, we agree on how to responsibly integrate unmanned aircraft system technology while still protecting privacy and civil rights. Specifically:

• Police should be required to obtain warrants to use drones to conduct surveillance on an individual.

• Any drone program in North Carolina should have strong public oversight, and all government uses should be documented.

• The law should not restrict drones from being used to help respond to emergencies such as fires, natural disasters or 911 calls requiring police.

By embracing these principles on which Olaeris and the ACLU can agree, North Carolina not only can integrate the first statewide UAS network in the country but also unite two important perspectives of the drone debate.

Clear regulations such as these are good not only for the personal privacy rights of residents but also for the drone industry itself, which will not be restricted or hindered by privacy protections but rather would benefit from clear legal guidelines and the public assurance that this technology will be used appropriately. They will also help police better rely on drone-gathered evidence that has been properly collected, handled and stored in accordance with legal procedures.

North Carolina is well positioned to attract hundreds of start-up companies that could build on this technology to generate billions of dollars and create countless jobs across multiple industries. We can also create a national model for drone regulations that allows the industry to thrive while ensuring that the government not use this new technology to infringe on the constitutional rights of its people. We urge North Carolina’s lawmakers to embrace these principles and move quickly to pass the language contained in HB 312 before the opportunity is lost.

Sarah Preston is policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. Ted Lindsley is founder and CEO of Olaeris, a company that develops and manufactures unmanned aerial systems.

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