Prospect of drones in NC has backers, opponents buzzing
Posted January 17, 2014
Updated January 18, 2014
Raleigh, N.C. — State lawmakers next week will begin discussing rules for government and commercial use of drone aircraft in North Carolina, and the balance between security and privacy will likely become a central issue.
After the city of Monroe proposed buying a drone for its police department last year, lawmakers passed a two-year moratorium on use of the unmanned aircraft by state or local governments.
Privacy advocates say drones will open the door to unconstitutional surveillance, but Kyle Snyder and other drone proponents say the aircraft have legitimate uses and that the state shouldn't go too far in regulating them.
Snyder, who heads the Next Generation Air Transportation Center at North Carolina State University, is the only government employee in the state allowed to use drones.
Since last July, he has been flying a 3-pound drone over Hyde County to take pictures of farmland. "Unmanned aerial systems," as he calls them, can survey crops for pests and damage much more cheaply than planes, saving farmers a lot of money.
They can also map flood plains, survey wildfires and even help in search and rescue, said Snyder, who will help lawmakers write the new regulations.
"No state agency should just go out and fly," he said. "So, let's present a data management plan and a mission – here's what we're going to go accomplish today, and here's what we're going to do with the data afterward."
Snyder said he expects drones to proliferate in the next few years, and he doesn't want North Carolina to restrict them too much. The industry is looking for a home, he said, and it could mean hundreds of jobs in the state.
"The industry wants to come here," he said. "I've got industry partners lined up to say, 'Yes, if we can fly and we can fly in multiple locations in your state, we're ready to come.'"
Sarah Preston, policy director with the state chapter of the ACLU, said North Carolina should adopt strict rules for drones, at least as far as government use is concerned.
"There are ways in which the technology can be beneficial, and we certainly don't want to say you can't use it at all," Preston said. "We just want you to abide by the same constitutional protections that you have to abide by when you're doing other types of surveillance."
A bill filed in the last legislative session would require police to get a warrant to use a drone and bar them from using anyone else's drone video in court. Preston said she is hopeful that will pass this year.
"This is an opportunity for the legislature to get ahead of the technology, get laws in place to regulate the use, particularly having to do with government surveillance, before every police or county agency has one," she said.