General Assembly members began learning more Tuesday about the emerging unmanned aircraft industry and are likely to debate soon what restrictions North Carolina could place on drones to protect people's privacy.
A House panel held its first meeting to examine the use of drones for agriculture, law enforcement and other fields. Committee members also are expected to examine how to balance their potential with the constitutional rights of those who may be filmed or have their data collected.
The Federal Aviation Administration essentially prohibits the commercial use of these aircraft right now. But tests are being done at hundreds of locations nationwide, including North Carolina, with an eye toward private use in the future. The NextGen Air Transportation Center, based at North Carolina State University, has permission to fly the very small aircraft over acreage in Hyde County and in Butner and Moyock.
The FAA could soon provide rules unmanned aircraft, the software to run it and the data collection. Kyle Snyder, the NextGen center's director, cited an economic impact study showing the industry could generate more than 1,100 jobs in North Carolina by 2025. The center's drone has been taking pictures of farmland. An unmanned aerial system could examine potential crop damage more cheaply than planes.
"The industry wants to come here," Snyder said recently. "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.'"
The committee's attention is likely to focus upon the use of drones by local and state governments.
The city of Monroe proposed buying a drone for its police department. Afterward, the General Assembly approved a budget provision last summer placing a moratorium on governments buying or operating drones until July 2015 unless the state's chief information officer believes it's necessary. The provision also prevented the disclosure of personal information acquired thorough the operation of an unmanned aircraft system during the period.
The committee could propose ideas for the legislature to consider when it reconvenes in May.
A bill filed last year by Rep. Mitchell Setzer, R-Catawba and the study panel's co-chairman, would have barred drone use by local or state law enforcement in criminal investigations unless officers had a search warrant or "reasonable suspicion" that immediate action was needed to prevent imminent harm to life, serious property damage or other exceptions.
The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union helped Setzer on the bill. State ACLU lobbyist Sarah Preston says her group would keep pushing for pro-privacy legislation related to drones.
"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 before the meeting. "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."
Rep. John Faircloth, R-Guilford, a committee member and former High Point police chief, said recently that he can envision police using drones "if it can be done in a way that does not intimidate the public ... We've got to show that the benefit is worth the investment."
State Chief Information Officer Chris Estes, who also addressed the committee Tuesday, said his office is now developing a plan for unmanned aircraft systems within state government.