While North Carolina pursues the potential economic boost of unmanned aerial systems, some legislators remain cautious about how the use of what are more commonly known as “drones” by law enforcement, other government agencies and commercial enterprises could affect privacy and civil liberties in the state.
With a small red-and-white, fully functional aircraft sitting at one end of a conference table, members of a North Carolina House study commission on Tuesday, Jan. 21, got their first in-depth look at efforts by researchers and state officials to assess the value of the emerging technology.
They also got a lesson in the legal complexities should federal barriers to commercial use of unmanned aerial vehicles come down.
The House Committee on Unmanned Aerial Systems formed after efforts failed last session to adopt rules on the use of the aircraft in anticipation of their likely clearance for commercial use by the Federal Aviation Authority, which currently prohibits commercial applications.
While the legislation — the Preserving Privacy Act of 2013 — died in a committee during the session, legislators did agreed to study the issue.
Although not allowed for commercial purposes, there are some unmanned systems already operating in the state. After obtaining waivers from the FAA, North Carolina State University’s NextGen Air Transportation Center (NGAT) opened three test sites located at Camp Butner, in Granville County; Hyde County; and at Moyock, in Currituck County.
NGAT director Kyle Snyder told the committee that a key FAA report due later this year could clear the way for some commercial uses as early as 2015. The center, he said, wants to expand its program, which has focused on agricultural applications, throughout the state. The new sites would be based mainly out of N.C. State’s network of agriculture research stations, including its Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center, located in Henderson County.
NGAT was initially funded with $1.3 million from N.C. State, the state Department of Transportation and the Golden Leaf Foundation. It received an additional $2.5 million for 2014-15 in last year’s state budget to step up operations.
Snyder told legislators that the state is in a strong positioned to be a leader in attracting next generation aerial technology companies. He said state law enforcement agencies, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the DOT are also interested in adopting the use of unmanned aerial systems.
Privacy concerns persist
Committee members said that although drones’ commercial potential and use by state agencies are promising, there needs to be strong consideration for its potential to affect civil liberties.
Rep. Tim Moffitt, R-Asheville, said he thinks concerns about privacy and citizens’ rights against unlawful search and seizure will need to be satisfied before moving forward on the use of the aircraft in North Carolina.
“It’s important to understand how data collected by unmanned aerial vehicles is utilized,” he said.
While he agreed with the assessment that their use “is the future,” Moffitt, who co-sponsored last year’s bill, said he had strong reservations about privacy and that law enforcement applications not run afoul of the 4th Amendment. “People need to feel safe and secure in their homes,” he said.
Rep. Chris Whitmire, R-Transylvania, said he saw the value of the technology, particularly in agricultural applications and in gathering information after natural disasters, but he agreed that the state would likely have to adopt tight restrictions to protect citizens.
“There are many positives, but how you employ those positives certainly has to be done with respect for civil liberties and privacy,” he said. Rules for the use of the systems, he said, should be “as abuse-proof as possible.”
Sarah Preston, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, said rules for use by law enforcement of unmanned systems would have to be closely scrutinized. The ACLU supported last year’s legislation, she said, because it had a strong requirements for search warrants before the information could be used.
“We thought that was a good provision,” she told Carolina Public Press. “We want to see that when law enforcement or any state agency is using drone technology to conduct surveillance that they are abiding by regular constitutional protections.”
The committee could be pressed for time in developing legislation ahead of the upcoming short session, which starts in May. Under House rules, the committee can only meet four times and has to wrap up all of its work before the end of the year or seek an extension.
Moffitt said he’s trying to get an understanding of how much the pending federal decisions will affect what the state can do in the way of regulating the use of the technology and the information it generates.