Nation

Washington state goes in circles over drone regulations

NationLaws and LegislationGovernmentPoliticsDemocracyFederal Aviation AdministrationAir Transportation Industry
States struggle to balance privacy concerns with promises of thousands of jobs in the fledgling drone industry
FAA plan for policing drones isn't expected for more than a year

State agencies in Iowa can't use drones to enforce traffic laws. It is illegal to use the unmanned aircraft in Tennessee to conduct video surveillance of hunters or fishermen without their explicit permission. In Wisconsin, it is against the law to own a drone outfitted with a weapon.

In Washington state, it is too soon to tell how the effort to regulate the versatile but controversial aircraft will end up. The Legislature's first try was vetoed in April. A task force charged with taking another stab at creating controls met for the first time Monday and focused on privacy issues.

And after three hours of polite but often circular discussion about the gadgets — which can fight fires, film movies, bomb enemies and, perhaps, someday deliver goods to your door — only one thing was abundantly clear: Something has to be done.

Because, as task force member Eric Folkestad told the assembled group, "in the absence of regulation, it's the Wild West."

The Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates the nation's airspace, frowns upon using drones for commercial purposes and does not allow them to be flown in highly populated areas, said Folkestad, who is Cascade chapter president of the Assn. for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

The only problem is that the federal agency still hasn't written regulations for the rapidly evolving technology. Its plan for policing drones isn't expected for more than a year.

States have begun stepping into the federal void, but the process has been contentious and results have varied widely, as legislatures struggle to balance privacy concerns with thousands of jobs and billions in revenue promised by the fledgling industry.

As of April, 16 states have passed some kind of drone regulation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Folkestad's drone industry group estimates that laws are in the works in an additional 20 states.

Exhibit A for more restrictions happened up Interstate 5 just about a week ago.

That's when an alleged "peeping drone" hovered near the window of a 26th floor Seattle high-rise, alarming its not-quite-dressed owner. She complained to the concierge. She felt "violated," she said. He complained to the police.

The drone's owner insisted that he only flew the unmanned aircraft over buildings whose owners gave him permission. The gadget took panoramic photographs on behalf of an architect client, he added, not intrusive images of women in the altogether.

Although the owner's defense was shot down during the task force meeting at the capital here Monday, the government's shortcomings were also on display.

"Part of the issue is the general murkiness of the FAA regulations," said Shankar Narayan, legislative director for the ACLU of Washington and a panel member. "I don't call them FAA laws ... they're much more like suggestions than they are like binding regulations."

A major hurdle for the group — which included elected officials, industry members and a citizen representative appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee — was figuring out just what should be regulated.

Democratic state Sen. Maralyn Chase talked about the need to expand the use of unmanned aircraft after disasters such as the March landslide in Oso, Wash., which took 43 lives.

Jessica Archer, policy and assessment coordinator with the state Department of Ecology, worried that agencies may have to stop obtaining important data from contractors using drones if the aircraft are outlawed for government use.

Some on the panel argued that the state should control both government and commercial use of drones. A subset of the group wanted so-called technology neutral regulations, which would manage the information gathered, but not the vehicle that does the gathering.

"We don't need a drone bill," said Rowland Thompson, executive director of Allied Daily Newspapers and a member of the task force. "If we try to have a drone bill, we will get involved in the private use of drones.

"The state will be overwhelmed, because they will become ubiquitous," he said. "We really need to talk about the legal questions around the gathering of information by law enforcement and regulatory agencies."

In the end, the group decided that Washington state law should regulate government use of drones and that privacy was the paramount issue, the fundamental right that constituents worried about and that the state constitution vowed to protect.

Although they acknowledged that regulations might expand to include technology other than drones, the unmanned aircraft will be the first focus of legislation for the 2015 session. The task force will meet again in August.

"There's a reason we're looking specifically at drones," Narayan said. "They are a game-changing technology that's a lot cheaper to operate than manned aircraft. And there's a surreptitiousness aspect.... I wouldn't want to lose the focus on drones. It's what the public is concerned about."

maria.laganga@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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