The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 25, 2014

Our View: Drone regulations filled with pitfalls

Why it matters: The public wants protection from government use of drones but to tread softly on private use.


The Mankato Free Press

---- — The use of drones is about to explode.

Small drones are being developed to fly over farm fields to measure germination rates and health of plants. Drones are being used for aerial photography and videography, allowing people to imagine what the view would be like from a proposed building tower in Mankato. Journalists are looking at drones to get images of forest fires, accidents or structure fires. Law enforcement is contemplating their use in everything from border control to tracking criminals.

Lawmakers across the country, including in Minnesota, are beginning to look at how to regulate the unmanned flying units. It’s a needed discussion that’s fraught with danger.

The first order of business in the minds of most citizens is to prevent abuse of drones by law enforcement and other government agencies. Most want legislation that would require law enforcement officials to be granted a warrant before using drones in investigations.

While there is general agreement on requiring warrants, even limits on government use can have unintended consequences. Washington state lawmakers passed a bill that limits government use of drones, but also limits the public’s right to government information. The law says images taken from a government drone must not allow the disclosure of “personal information” that “describes, locates or indexes anything about a person.”

That would mean that a government drone taking images of a wildfire couldn’t be shown to the public if a car or person or private property might be identifiable, even though those same images are currently public records if the government shoots the images from a helicopter flying over a wildfire. Such limits on the public’s right to access government information is unacceptable.

But the real complexities and pitfalls in drone regulation will be in the commercial and private sector. Even the current use of drones for commercial purposes is in flux. The FAA has taken the stance hobbyists can legally fly drones, but not those who use them for paid commercial use. But a federal judge this month ruled that commercial use of drones is legal. Either way, the FAA is to have guidelines in place by next year for commercial use — mostly related to the air space issue.

More controversial will be any laws limiting the use of drones by individuals or businesses. Some privacy groups and lawmakers say the government needs to ensure drones aren’t invading privacy. To be sure there will be privacy issues galore as drones are put into widespread use: Private investigators tracking people, drones peering down into yards and onto private property, and activists using them to expose problems, to name just a few.

Some states are looking at serious restrictions. Texas legislators proposed a bill to ban aerial photography from remote vehicles, and privacy groups have petitioned for every drone flight to require FAA approval.

Such laws would be unworkable, overreaching and stifle the huge potential in commercial and private drone use. How, for example, can a law require people to get permission before taking images of private property?

Google Earth has already mapped and made available close-up images of most every square inch of the world via satellite and travelling ground-based cameras. Businesses have for decades flown planes over farms and other property taking photos and selling them.

As lawmakers fashion regulations they should be highly skeptical of imposing restrictions on commercial and private use of drones. There will undoubtedly be gaps to fill in drone legislation in the future, but for now the industry needs to find its potential even though the growth will bring new problems and challenges.