Drones have evolved into small, increasingly sophisticated remote-controlled devices capable of shooting crisp, clear video and pictures from hundreds of feet in the air. They also are igniting a fresh phase in the nationwide debate on the right to privacy vs. the need for surveillance.
In Minnesota, businesses have begun relying on devices that can be as small as a hand to take aerial shots of property, monitor crop growth on farms, deliver goods and even gather news. That is sparking regulatory concerns among lawmakers, who want to determine just how much authority they have in limiting such rapidly evolving airborne technology.
“One of the questions we’ll be asking is whether it’s even ready for regulation — whether we know about the field, the uses, the possible misuses,” said state Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park. “Do we really know enough yet to shape regulations?”
Some of those answers may come in a hearing Latz and other lawmakers will attend Friday, to learn about the capability of drones.
Some states have been moving rapidly to put some boundaries around the use of drones. All of Minnesota’s neighboring states — with the exception of South Dakota — have imposed some restrictions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Across the country, 20 states have passed laws regarding the use of such unmanned aerial vehicles. Last year, Illinois moved to prohibit law enforcement from using drones without first obtaining a warrant.
Drones have raised enough ire that the tiny town of Deer Trail, Colo., for a time considered a proposal to put a bounty on the devices, allowing those with hunting licenses to shoot them out of the sky. The citizenry voted down that proposal and the Federal Aviation Administration informed them that it would take a dim view of anyone who shot anything out of the sky.
The FAA has weighed in on the other side, too. Earlier this year it nixed a Minnesota brewer’s attempt to deliver cold beer to ice fishing houses on the state’s many lakes.
Minnesota considered several regulatory bills last year, but they stalled even as the city of St. Bonifacius moved to ban drones from its airspace.
Among those testifying at Friday’s informational hearing will be law enforcement, privacy advocates, agriculture researchers and FAA officials. The FAA has already set some standards regulating the use of drones, but Congress has ordered more specific regulations in place by September 2015.
“It’s become clear that they’re not going to meet that deadline,” said Donald Chance Mark Jr., an attorney whose Eden Prairie law firm has launched a specialized department to advise clients on drone usage.
While the FAA permits drone usage on a case-by-case basis for law enforcement, research or to oversee oil pipeline projects, Mark’s firm believes drones flying for commercial purposes are doing so outside the law. Mark, who is scheduled to testify at Friday’s hearing, said he’s encouraged by the Legislature’s attention to the technology as his firm waits for guidance so they may advise clients how to use the devices legally and ethically.
“Certain uses of drones implicate conflicting values that we hold very dearly, such as free speech and privacy issues,” Mark said. “There will be some very difficult cases that come down the road.”
Drone usage also represents a conflict for the American Civil Liberties Union, a champion of both free speech and privacy.
The organization has proposed rules for government drone use that call for law enforcement to use the devices only with a warrant and only in cases related to specific wrongdoing. More proposals will come, said Jay Stanley, ACLU senior policy analyst and privacy and technology expert.
“This is a very powerful surveillance technology that will be used for mass pervasive surveillance if we don’t put in some common sense rules to protect our privacy,” Stanley said, adding that the FAA is coming under pressure to loosen the rules that allow more drones into U.S. airspace.
“I don’t think anyone wants to feel from the moment they walk out their front door until they get home at night that there’s some invisible eye in the sky that’s tracking their every move when they’re going to political protests, visiting their friends, their lovers, their church, their union, their doctors,” Stanley said.
James Franklin, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association, said that no departments in Minnesota are using drones but that the technology could become an effective law enforcement tool for gathering evidence, particularly in fast-moving emergency situations, such as missing persons or armed subjects on the run. Franklin said the association supports search warrant requirements for using drones, just as they’re required for searching a home, car or bank records.
Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, a retired law enforcement officer who sponsored drone-related legislation last year, said he plans to reintroduce a bill that would set some guidelines for law enforcement to use the devices, particularly in emergency situations in outstate Minnesota, when getting access to a helicopter takes precious time. Johnson said he would be content with limiting legislation to that until the FAA sets its guidelines.
“I’d rather start small, and see what rules the FAA will set,” he said. “Until then we don’t know what those regulations are.”
Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, who also sponsored drone legislation last session, said he hopes the new information on the devices will spur some level of regulation in Minnesota.
“Every year that we sit on our hands, more problems arise from people being surveilled,” he said. “It’s really something we should have a policy on.”
Abby Simons • 651-925-5043