Raleigh, N.C. — House lawmakers on Wednesday unanimously approved a bill permitting but regulating the use of unmanned aircraft in North Carolina.
Lawmakers of both parties have been working on the measure for months.
The Federal Aviation Administration has not yet lifted a federal ban on the commercial use of drones. The agency is expected to lift that ban and issue guidelines for them within the next few months.
Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, said House Bill 1099 is an attempt to make sure the state has rules in place when that happens.
Under the legislation, drone operators would have to be 18, pass a knowledge and skills test (still to be developed) and require a license for commercial use. Once the FAA permits commercial use, it still wouldn't be allowed in North Carolina until the Department of Transportation implements testing and licensing or until May 31, 2015, whichever comes first.
The measure also includes a long list of restrictions on the use of drones, as well as civil and criminal penalties for misuse.
Using a drone to conduct surveillance of a person or private property without consent would be forbidden. So would using a drone to take a photograph of a person to disseminate or publish it, except by news organizations. The bill grants an exception for newsworthy or public events.
Law enforcement would also be allowed to use drones for surveillance in "plain view" or if the officer has a search warrant, to address a high risk of a terrorist attack, to search for missing persons or escaped suspects or inmates and to photograph public events.
Evidence collected by a drone in violation of the restrictions wouldn't be admissible in court unless it was collected in "good faith" that it was lawful.
The measure allows a person to sue if he or she is subjected to unlawful surveillance or has his or her photograph taken and published without consent.
The proposal says infrared or thermal imaging can't be used by commercial or private operators to spy on people. It bans people from launching or landing a drone on public or private property without consent. Local governments would be allowed to regulate how their property can be used.
Using a drone to hunt or fish or to harass hunters would be a misdemeanor. Putting a weapon on one, or using one with a weapon on it, would be a felony, as would using a drone to interfere with manned aircraft traffic.
Torbett compared the growing unmanned aircraft industry to Wilbur and Orville Wright at Kitty Hawk in 1903.
"Here we are, 111 years later, and we're standing today on the precipice of the next era of aviation," he said. "'First in Flight' – why not be the first in unmanned flight as well?"
Torbett says the new industry is looking for a home. He says North Carolina would be a natural fit, especially given the aerospace cluster near the state's military bases in the east, and the passage of the bill will open the skies to developers and send a signal that the state wants the jobs.
Still, some lawmakers in a committee hearing Wednesday morning had tough questions.
Rep. Robert Reives, D-Lee, said he worries that paparazzi would use drones to get onto film sets and take photos of actors and productions.
"Drones can get into areas manned flights can't," Reives said. "It's worth it to a paparazzi to pay a $5,000 civil fine to get a $100,000 picture."
Rep. John Faircloth, R-Guilford, a co-sponsor of the bill, said state regulations will have to evolve as the industry develops and new uses emerge.
"This is a very nebulous situation," Faircloth said. "It's brand new."
The measure now goes to the Senate for approval in what's left of the short session.