EMERY P. DALESIO
RALEIGH, N.C. - A little-noted provision in North Carolina's budget prohibits police and other government agencies from buying surveillance drones for the next two years, as state lawmakers study the balance between security and privacy.
While that should sideline plans for many agencies that would like to deploy an economical eye in the sky, exceptions are allowed and the state Department of Transportation expects it will receive one to get a drone research field off the ground in rural Hyde County.
These aren't the airplane-sized drones that the U.S. military and intelligence services have used to seek out and kill alleged terrorists with laser-guided missiles. Instead, they are oversized model planes fitted with cameras, thermal-imaging units and global-positioning systems and often launched by hand. They can be cheaper than a helicopter to operate, so law enforcement agencies are increasingly thinking about using them over U.S. soil. But privacy concerns have brought together liberals concerned about individual freedom with tea partiers suspicious about government in urging restraint when it comes to drones.
Under the state budget law, no state or local governmental entity may buy or operate a drone "or disclose personal information about any person acquired through the operation of an unmanned aircraft system" before July 2015, unless the state's chief information officer decides it's needed.
The delay is to allow time to study worries that police departments were going to start buying unmanned aerial vehicles and they'd have round-the-clock ability to track the public, said Rep. Jason Saine, a top House budget-writer on information technology matters.
"Knowing that it's a hot-button issue, I just felt like it was best that we study the issue," said Saine, R-Lincoln.
In Union County, Monroe's city council in March gave - and within weeks revoked - approval for the police department to use $44,000 in drug forfeiture funds to buy a battery-powered mini-drone with a rotating infrared camera. Police wanted to use the 3-foot-long, 2.5-pound drone at crime scenes, in searches or in case of natural disasters.
The Gaston County Police Department bought a similar drone in 2006 but shelved it because of mechanical problems. Greensboro's police department has identified drones as potentially useful, but hasn't tried to buy one, spokeswoman Susan Danielsen said.
More than 30 states were considering regulatory action on domestic drones amid concerns that they would be used to spy on Americans, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In April, Virginia became the first state to pass a law restricting drones with a two-year moratorium on police use except in emergencies, the NCSL said. Idaho passed a law stating police must get probable cause warrants before using surveillance drones and prohibits anyone from using a drone to photograph private property without the owner's written permission. Florida, Montana, Tennessee, Oregon, and Texas also passed laws this year limiting drone use or the evidence police could gather with them, the group said.
The FBI has said drones allow the FBI to learn critical information that otherwise would be difficult to obtain without introducing serious risk to law enforcement personnel. For example, the FBI used drones at night during a six-day hostage standoff in Alabama earlier this year. It ended when members of an FBI rescue team stormed an underground bunker, killing gunman Jimmy Lee Dykes before he could harm a 5-year-old boy held hostage.
Drones are banned from U.S. airspace without a certificate, which the Federal Aviation Administration can issue to police, universities and other public agencies. The FAA has issued more than 1,000 certificates since 2009, but just 327 were considered active in February.
A quartet of Republican and Democratic state lawmakers reacted to the Monroe news within days by introducing legislation that would have prevented government agencies or anyone else from using aerial drones to gather criminal evidence and other data.
The American Civil Liberties Union in North Carolina said legislative action was needed to protect privacy rights before drone use mushroomed. ACLU chapters in North Carolina and 22 other states filed public records requests this spring asking police agencies to explain how they are using drones and other equipment chiefly used by the military.
"I think the big concern about drones is they're fairly cheap, they're quiet and they're small. So if law enforcement has access to drones, there's no telling what they could do, what kind of surveillance they could use the drones for," said Sarah Preston, policy director of the ACLU of North Carolina. "What we're trying to do is make sure that these drones aren't being used to surveil innocent people without the use of a warrant."
Congress ordered the FAA to develop safety regulations by September 2015 that would allow routine domestic use of drones. The agency predicts 15,000 civilian drones could be in use nationwide by 2020. The FAA is selecting six test ranges around the country where it will study how best to integrate their multiplying numbers safely into the nation's airspace.
North Carolina is one of more than two dozen states in the running for the test sites, a project that could bring drones to the state's skies despite the Legislature's ban.
The state DOT's aviation division and North Carolina State University are developing a site north of Lake Mattamuskeet in coastal Hyde County where private companies and academic researchers could test unmanned aircraft. The agency projects spending about $2.5 million in the next two years developing the rural site centered on the county airport, said DOT Deputy Secretary Richard Walls.
DOT obtained an FAA certificate this spring and held a couple of test runs for the hand-launched remotely piloted vehicles, or RPVs, Walls said. The flights took thermal images of the soil in the farm fields below as a likely eventual use of commercial drones in the state's agriculture industry will be to check soil nutrient content, Walls said.
While the state DOT hopes to land FAA funding for one of its test ranges, state officials plan to go ahead regardless researching what seems likely to be a growing industry of the future, Walls said. The state's requirement to get an exception to the statewide drone ban shouldn't be a problem, he said.
"I think we'll get the exception granted and we'll move forward with the program. I'm confident," Walls said. "We're still going forward with our range and figuring out how to make RPVs work for North Carolina."