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After a Drone Crashed into Seattle's Space Needle, State Lawmakers Discuss New Regulations

Some state lawmakers are growing increasingly concerned about the popularity of the unmanned aircraft and are launching renewed efforts to regulate them.

(TNS) — When a drone crashes into the Space Needle in Seattle, does it make a sound at the state Capitol?

Washingtonians are about to find out.

Some state lawmakers are growing increasingly concerned about the popularity of the unmanned aircraft, and are launching renewed efforts to regulate them.

The push in Olympia comes shortly after a drone crashed into the Space Needle on New Year’s Eve as workers were preparing for the landmark’s annual fireworks show.

State Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, said the Space Needle incident is only the latest in a string of unfortunate episodes with drones.

In May, a drone equipped with a camera crashed through the window of a home in Seattle’s Capitol Hill.

In 2015, a drone knocked a woman unconscious at the Pride Parade in downtown Seattle, and another drone crashed into the Ferris wheel on the Seattle waterfront.

Prior to those incidents, a Seattle woman reported a drone floating outside her apartment window while she was topless in May 2014.

Morris said he’s particularly worried about people using drones to spy on others in their homes.

“It’s perfectly fine to go out and take pictures in parks of geese. But if you’re using it to basically commit voyeurism or stalk somebody,” it’s not, he said.

Legislation sponsored by Morris would make it a civil infraction to fly a drone over private property while taking photographs or collecting other personal information. The measure — which Morris introduced before news spread about the drone hitting the Space Needle — would apply unless the drone operator has special federal authorization or the property owner’s consent.

House Bill 1049 also would make it a civil offense to launch a drone that isn’t labeled with the name and phone number of the owner, something Morris said would help law enforcement locate owners of drones that are flying recklessly or breaking the rules.

While the Federal Aviation Administration recently began requiring all drone aircraft over 0.55 pounds to be registered with the agency, Morris said that ownership information isn’t necessarily shared with local law enforcement officials.

Police in Olympia, Lacey and Tacoma said they haven’t encountered the same problems with drones as police in Seattle have. But Tacoma police spokeswoman Loretta Cool said that could change as drones become cheaper and more widely used.

A spring FAA report estimated that 2.5 million drones would be sold in 2016, with drone sales projected to rise to 7 million annually by 2020.

“I think that as the cost for drones drops, we will see these types of crimes, so I think any legislation that gets ahead of an issue is helpful,” Cool wrote in an email.

Some lawmakers, however, worry that attempts to regulate drones could hurt aerospace companies and other Washington businesses.

Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, said he has “concerns about things that could stunt a growing industry.”

“We’ve got a number of startup companies and established companies that are working in that field,” said Fain, who is the Senate majority floor leader.

“We have to tread carefully.”

An industry group, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, is opposing Morris’ bill, arguing that regulating airspace should be left to the federal government. In a letter dated Jan. 9, the group’s president and CEO, Brian P. Wayne, wrote that proposals like Morris’ “have the potential to create a complicated patchwork of laws that will erode, rather than enhance, aviation safety.”

“If enacted, the bill would create inconsistencies with federal law, stifle innovation, and jeopardize current and future jobs in the growing unmanned systems sector in the state,” Wayne wrote.

John Thornquist, who heads the Office of Aerospace in the state Department of Commerce, said the FAA already has rules banning drones from flying above 400 feet, meaning the drone that hit the Space Needle’s upper deck was operating illegally.

The top of the Space Needle measures 605 feet.

Morris’ proposal received a hearing Tuesday in the committee he chairs, the House Technology and Economic Development Committee.

Other efforts in the Legislature focus on regulating the use of drones by government agencies. State Rep. David Taylor, R-Moxee, has reintroduced legislation that would require government agencies to get a warrant before using a drone to collect images or other personal information about people in most nonemergency situations.

Taylor said he doesn’t think government agencies such as the Department of Ecology should be using drones to try to enforce regulations on private property.

“There is a fundamental principle of respecting private property rights in Washington state, and that should apply to drones,” Taylor said.

Taylor’s measure, House Bill 1102, also would limit the public disclosure of personal information collected by government drones — an issue that caused Gov. Jay Inslee to veto a similar proposal in 2014. At the time, the Democratic governor said he didn’t want to create broad new exemptions to the state’s Public Records Act.

It’s unclear whether Taylor’s bill would face a similar fate this year, should it pass both chambers of the Legislature.

“We’ll take a look at whatever proposal legislators bring forward and let them know if we have concerns,” Inslee spokeswoman Jaime Smith said.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International hasn’t taken a position on Taylor’s bill, which hasn’t been scheduled for a hearing.

Taylor’s proposal wouldn’t prevent government agencies from using drones to monitor wildlife or help fight wildfires.

©2017 The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.