Drones over Florida? Part 3: proposed legislation doesn't regulate private use

02/26/13 Janelle Irwin
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Bills proposed in the Florida Legislature and Congress would regulate drone use, but do little to address private use. Thomas Rambo started a private company in Gainesville called Altavian.

“So that means natural resource management – we do a bunch of floating vegetation stuff down in the Everglades, infrastructure monitoring – so, levees, oil lines, pipelines, power lines, all that kind of stuff. The terminology we use is, dull, dirty and dangerous. So, things that are … or a little bit dangerous to fly over like low flights in the Everglades, unmanned aircraft are really [good for that].”

Drones have their critics. The unmanned craft have killed civilians in war zones. More and more groups are starting to call attention to possible invasions of privacy by drones. Rambo says those fears shouldn’t apply to his company because not only do they not use drones for surveillance, they do use them to keep researchers safe.

“The sad fact is, every year about seven wildlife biologists die trying to collect information in the Everglades or other swamps and we figure that there is a better way to do it.”

But the aircraft used by Altavian do have the capability to take photographs. And as of right now, there are no regulations stopping the aircraft from unknowingly capturing images of people in places they think are private.

“One would have to be an idiot not to recognize that there are good or bad uses of drones and most people on both sides of that discussion are not idiots.”

That’s David Swanson, a peace activist in Charlottesville, Virginia who successfully introduced a local measure calling on the United States Congress and the state to adopt legislation prohibiting information obtained from the domestic use of drones from being introduced into a Federal or State court. Even though he realizes drones can be invaluable in some instances, he still worries commercial use might end up paving the way for future privacy violations.

“Which is more important? Is it more important that we have fourth amendment protections that are widely considered essential to maintaining representative government – or acquiring it as the case might be – or is it more important to allow real estate agents to have a fancy new tool that they’ve gotten along fine without for many, many years.”

The FAA is in the process of choosing six test sites in the U.S. for drones. According to an FAA fact sheet, the number of public agencies allowed to fly drones has more than doubled since 2009. And the multi-billion dollar industry is only expected to grow. Altavian’s Rambo says there are still untapped uses for unmanned aircraft.

“We can do volumetric surveys in lines and power plants and all of this is just with photographs. If you start talking about real time video than you know, search and rescue, wild fire monitoring and basically anything that a manned aircraft can do, we can do for about a third of the cost.

“Overriding are all involved in this are the issues of the fourth amendment, the expectation of privacy and the word ‘surveillance.’”

That’s Ted Poe, the Republican member of Congress from Texas who introduced a bill that would limit law enforcement use of drones by requiring a warrant to deploy them. Poe also recognizes that there are alternative uses for the flying technology that should be allowed. Legislation filed in the Florida legislature would also limit drone use. St. Petersburg Senator Jeff Brandes, also a Republican, co-introduced that bill.

“There [are] legitimate uses for these – whether that be to search for invasive species, whether it be to do agricultural work or other types of things, you know, mapping – there’s all kinds of wonderful uses and practical uses for technology, but not to track Floridians.”

The Florida legislation has already passed two Senate committees unanimously. It’s now in the Judiciary Committee. A similar bill in the House unanimously passed the Criminal Justice Subcommittee this month and is now in the Local and Federal Affairs Committee. That bill would not affect companies like Altavian and would only apply to law enforcement use by requiring a judge to approve drone use.

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