DES MOINES — Lawmakers are taking a 30,000-foot look at unmanned aircraft systems, commonly known as drones.
A growing number of businesses and government agencies have received Federal Aviation Administration approval to fly their drones in Iowa, prompting lawmakers to consider state standards in tandem with existing federal regulations to balance legitimate uses with privacy concerns associated with a rapidly evolving technology and hobby.
House Study Bill 88 sets parameters for the use of unmanned aircraft systems employed by farmers, engineers, surveyors, utilities railroads, photographers, hobbyists, law enforcement and other government agencies and sets penalties for the misuse of aerial vehicles in photographing or gathering data on private property without permission.
Federal rules already put limits on speeds, altitudes and distances from airports that pilots can fly their drones.
Rep. Jarad Klein, a Keota Republican who uses a drone on his farming operation to scout crop development, monitoring flooding or conduct other management functions, said the Legislature is considering how best to balance privacy concerns with personal freedoms without stifling business enterprises and commercial applications.
The Legislature’s initial foray into regulating unmanned aerial vehicles came in 2014 when lawmakers approved and Gov. Terry Branstad signed a bill to prohibit state or local law enforcement authorities from using drone surveillance for traffic enforcement. The law also states that evidence obtained by law enforcement using an unmanned drone is not admissible in a criminal or civil trial unless it was obtained legally pursuant to a search warrant or in a manner consistent with state and federal law.
The proposed changes being contemplated this session deal with the use of drones by governmental agencies for research or for gathering and archiving data related to the search for a criminal suspect, providing support to another tactical operation, conducting crowd monitoring or in cases where there is “a reasonable belief” that an emergency exists that threatens lives or safety.
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Other parts of the bill deal with nuisances such as drones emitting peculiar sounds or excessive noise, spraying a gas or liquid or dropping an object, as well as specifying criminal penalties for using drones to stalk a victim, commit a terrorist act or to improperly “control” or “enter” an animal facility or crop operation property.
The bill also bars drones from being equipped with a dangerous weapon — with exemptions for the military or Iowa National Guard.
The bill’s initial subcommittee debut last week drew concerns from businesses like Terraplane that worried parts of the measure could hinder businesses doing video tracking of power line rights of way or aerial surveying that would move along public and private property. Such uses could involve “spillover imagery” where it would be impractical to get permission from every private property owner.
“It’s about intent,” Klein said. “What it really boils down to is if you’ve got permission, you’re good to go.
If you don’t have permission and you’re over private property, that’s when it starts to raise concerns.”
Representatives of county attorneys and civil libertarians also sparred over the admissibility in a criminal proceeding of evidence obtained through general crowd monitoring without a warrant and whether such activity potentially could chill free speech. A lobbyist for the motion picture association and broadcast news companies also wondered how the bill’s provisions would be applied to breaking news, car chases or other newsgathering functions.
“We have a lot of great people around the state and they’re the ones that I don’t want to get into their way, but the ones are out there to cause harm, we need to have some of these tools in place,” Klein said. “Will it stop them, not necessarily but what It will do is it will be a deterrent.”