Under the Dome

Legislative committee approves proposed law to regulate drones in NC


Proposed legislation regulating drone use in North Carolina would open the door for use of the unmanned aircraft by government agencies and for commercial flights once the Federal Aviation Administration allows them.

The draft legislation, approved unanimously Wednesday by the House Committee on Unmanned Aircraft Systems, includes proposed regulations that lawmakers said were intended to protect residents’ privacy, while at the same time allowing government agencies to use drones for legitimate purposes and putting North Carolina at the forefront of an emerging new industry.

Rep. John Torbett, a Gaston County Republican and co-chairman of the drone committee, said he expected the legislation to be considered in the General Assembly’s short session, which begins May 14.

“I hope the people that represent the citizens of North Carolina understand that there are remarkable job opportunities out there for growth,” Torbett told reporters after the committee meeting. “This is a new market. This is a relatively innovative, fresh market with unknown applications at this time.”

The legislation, if passed by state lawmakers and signed by Gov. Pat McCrory, would make it a felony for a drone operator to damage or disrupt the operation of manned aircraft, such an an airplane or a helicopter. It also would be a felony to possess or use a drone with a weapon attached. And it would be a misdemeanor to use an unmanned aircraft while fishing or hunting.

Under the proposed legislation, it would be illegal to use a drone to conduct surveillance of a person or a residence without consent. It would also be illegal to photograph someone with a drone and publish photos without consent, unless the photos were taken at “newsworthy events or events to which the public is invited.” That language was inserted through an amendment by Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat, to ensure media outlets could photograph people partaking in public events.

The proposal would allow state and local law enforcement agencies to use drones for surveillance if they get warrants or if the surveillance wouldn’t require a warrant for a manned flight. Police also could use drones to counter possible terrorist attacks, prevent “imminent danger to life or serious damage to property” or the escape of a suspect, to search for a missing person and to photograph public gatherings on public or private land.

Under a provision in the state budget, the purchase or use of drones by state and local governments is prohibited in North Carolina until July 1, 2015, without special permission from the state chief information officer. Commercial use is currently banned by the Federal Aviation Administration, which is developing its own guidelines for drone use.

The legislation would require the state Aviation Division to develop a knowledge and skills test, which all drone operators must pass. The test must be ready by Feb. 1, 2015. The law would require licenses for commercial operation of drones. Licensees would have to be at least 21 years old, have a valid driver’s license from any state or U.S. territory and pass the drone test. The proposal directs the Aviation Division to immediately begin developing the licensing system so it’s ready soon after the FAA authorizes commercial drone flights.

Illegal commercial use of a drone would be an infraction on first offense and a misdemeanor for subsequent offenses.

Lawmakers said they would continue to work to improve the legislation as the session nears.

Rep. Carl Ford, a Rowan County Republican, asked whether local governments would be able to pass their own laws regarding drones. He said he’d heard concerns that numerous drones could fly over high school football games, for example.

“There’s a lot of unanswered questions, I think, on the safety side,” he said.

Asked when he thought government agencies would be using drones in North Carolina, Torbett said, “I have no idea.”