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State opposition to domestic drone use grows

Several states have proposed anti-drone laws even as use of the unmanned aerial vehicles is increasing

February 8, 2013 05:54 AM ET

Computerworld - Applications for domestic drone licenses are increasing steadily, even as privacy concerns related to the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) over the U.S. continue to mount.

Government documents obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) show that as of October 2012, 81 public entities had sought licenses from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to operate drones. In fact between August and October, the FAA's drone authorization list grew more than 33%, from 60 applicants to 81 applicants.

Those who have applied for authorization include local police departments, the U.S. State Department, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, several universities and an Indian tribal agency.

The growing number of drone license applications comes amid mounting privacy and security concerns over their use. Earlier this week, Charlottesville, Va. became the first city in the U.S. to pass a resolution banning drones from its airspace "to the extent compatible with federal law."

The resolution prohibits city agencies from buying, leasing, borrowing or testing drones and provides a maximum penalty of up to one year in jail and a fine for up to $10,000 for violators. Charlottesville's anti-drone resolution cites several security and privacy issues as reasons for the ban.

On Wednesday, an anti-drone bill in Florida advanced when the Senate Committee on Community Affairs unanimously approved the measure 9-0. The bill prohibits state law enforcement agencies from using drones to gather evidence or information during investigations. It also prohibits the use of evidence gathered by drones in any criminal prosecution in any court in the state.

The bill does provide an exception to counter terrorist attacks and other high-risk security situations as determined by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. If approved, Florida's anti-drone bill would go into effect on July 1.

A similar bill introduced in the Texas legislature on Feb 1 seeks to restrict the use of images captured by drones flying over public and private property in the state. The Texas Privacy Act (H.B. 912) would make it an offense for any drone operator in the state to capture images of people on private property without the explicit permission of the person, unless the image was obtained using a valid search warrant.

Police in immediate pursuit of criminal suspects would be exempt from the prohibition, as would first responders in emergency situations.

Earlier this week, the Montana Senate approved by a wide margin a bill that prohibits state government agencies from using or owning unmanned aerial vehicles in Montana. Several other states, including Missouri, Virginia, Nebraska and Oregon are also considering legislation to curb drone use.

It remains unclear how effective or meaningful such measures will be, given that the FAA has the final say over U.S. airspace. Even so, the bills highlight the high level of concern that has been stoked by the passage of the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.

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