Drones can give firefighters, farmers and police an eagle eye in the sky without surreptitiously snooping on North Carolina residents, lawmakers say.

 A state House panel last week passed a plan to regulate drones that would allow law enforcement and industry to use unmanned aerial vehicles for limited purposes. Rep. Joe Tolson, D-Edgecombe (pictured at left), said the rules are designed to harness the benefits of pilotless flight.

"I think drones have a potential to be big business in North Carolina,” said Tolson, who sits on the 11-member House Committee on Unmanned Aircraft Systems. "There’s a lot of good things that can happen with the use of drones. One I was really interested in is how they can help the agriculture community.”

Tolson said farmers and ranchers can use drones to check on crops and monitor flood levels. Authorities could send a drone into the sky to record ground conditions during wildfires and natural disasters.

"You can fly a drone over for much cheaper than you can fly a manned vehicle,” Tolson said.

Lawmakers added a provision to the current budget that prevents most government agencies from buying or using drones without special permission.

The House Committee on Unmanned Aircraft Systems approved its report to the General Assembly last week. That document includes a draft bill that outlaws any drones equipped with weapons, whether operators are law enforcement officers or private citizens.

Possessing or using an unmanned aerial vehicle with a weapon attached would be a Class I felony under the bill. Using a drone to hunt or fish would be a Class 3 misdemeanor.

PROTECTING PRIVACY

Some privacy advocates fear that police drones could be used to spy on residents who have not been accused of crimes, depriving them of their Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches.

Tolson said lawmakers insisted on rules that would safeguard individual privacy rights.

"Whatever law enforcement had to do before, I think they would probably have to go through the same procedures,” Tolson said. "I think in most cases, you would have to show probable cause for any operation of a drone on somebody’s property. I don’t think this will make any changes in what law enforcement has to do to make sure they’re not acting against people’s rights.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina supports drone regulation and said the unmanned aerial vehicles have many positive applications.

"We hope the public and the legislature understand that sensible privacy protections can be adopted in a way that won’t interfere with the many legitimate and promising capabilities drones can provide across the state or prevent these industries from flourishing,” ACLU policy director Sarah Preston said in a statement.

Nearly three-quarters of North Carolina voters — 72 percent — say law enforcement agencies should have to secure a warrant before using a drone to conduct surveillance, according to a March poll the ACLU of North Carolina commissioned.

The draft bill requires enforcement agencies to obtain search warrants before conducting drone surveillance with two exceptions.

Drones could be used without search warrants to counter the high risk of a terrorist attack "if the United States secretary of homeland security determines that credible intelligence indicates that there is such a risk,” the bill states.

Authorities also could use drones if they have reasonable suspicion that "under particular circumstances, swift action is needed to prevent imminent danger to life or serious damage to property, to forestall the imminent escape of a suspect or the destruction of evidence, or to facilitate the search for a missing person.”

Reasonable suspicion is a less stringent legal standard than probable cause, which is required to secure a search warrant or arrest warrant.

Private and public drone operators would be prohibited from conducting surveillance of an individual or dwelling without that person’s permission or of photographing an individual without his or her written consent, though there’s an exception for public events.

"This subdivision shall not apply to newsworthy events or events to which the public is invited,” the bill states.

People who believe they’ve been unlawfully photographed or videotaped by a drone could sue in civil court, according to the bill. Evidence that was collected in violation of drone restrictions would be inadmissible in criminal cases.

USEFUL TECHNOLOGY

Drone proponents say unmanned aerial vehicles have a variety of useful applications. Ted Lindsley, CEO of the drone manufacturing company Olaeris, spoke about the technology’s benefits during a recent meeting of the state House committee.

"We want to demonstrate that unmanned aerial vehicles can be safely integrated into everyday life without compromising people’s privacy,” Lindsley said in a statement.

Olaeris plans to move its global headquarters to North Carolina, the company announced in December. Its first facility could employ up to 200 engineers, programmers, pilots and support staffers. Winston-Salem and Greensboro are said to be top choices for the company’s new home.

Lindsley said Olaeris is committed to ethical and legal drone use. The company has a Pepperdine University law professor and national security specialist on its executive advisory board to provide guidance on civil liberties and privacy matters.

Drones could be a boon to North Carolina agriculture by giving farmers and ranchers a bird’s-eye view of their expansive crop fields, advocates say. They’re a cheaper alternative to helicopters and small aircraft.

"It’s unlimited as to what it can be used for and how it can be used,” Tolson said. "I’m interested in seeing that we don’t hamper the development of drones in the state. Let’s not put too many restrictions in place. I know we’ve got to have some controls. You can always go back and make changes after things start developing.”

Tolson said drone regulations should safeguard privacy, but they shouldn’t be so burdensome that they stifle innovation.

Under the House committee’s draft bill, drone operators would be licensed by the N.C. Department of Transportation’s Division of Aviation and each drone must be registered with the state.

Drone operators must be 21 years old, have a valid United States driver’s license and pass a technology and skills test, according to the draft bill.

Lawmakers would direct the state’s Division of Aviation to develop a license application process, set licensing fees and determine criteria for suspending or revoking drone licenses. That agency also would determine how registered unmanned aerial vehicles should be marked.

Unlicensed drone operators would be guilty of an infraction on the first offense and a Class 3 misdemeanor if caught a second time, the bill states.

Tolson said lawmakers could consider the drone bill when they reconvene for the 2014 short session on May 14, but it could be postponed until the 2015 regular session. He stressed that the bill is a work in progress and will likely be amended.

"This is just a good start,” he said. "We’ll go from here and see what develops. I think this will be big business in the state and across the nation in the years to come.”

© 2014 The Wilson Daily Times (Wilson, N.C.)