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Eyes on the sky: N.C. policymakers ready to capitalize on the economic potential of commercial drone use

Some people hear the word “drone” and imagine militarized aircraft on combat operations too risky for human involvement.Drone with CameraWEB

Others see dollar signs.

In hopes of encouraging the latter, the North Carolina General Assembly recently approved new regulations regarding drone use. On Aug. 7, Gov. Pat McCrory signed a new state budget that includes the regulation of these unmanned aerial systems (UAS), placing North Carolina on the national forefront of legislation and announcing that the state is ready to reap the economic benefits many are predicting from this booming industry, which is often used in real estate marketing and providing visual construction updates to faraway investors.

If estimations are close to accurate, remote-controlled robots taking to the skies in coming years could spark the economy. But before the money starts flowing, state and federal governments need new laws in place to govern drone use.

According to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the world’s largest nonprofit organization devoted to advancing the unmanned systems and robotics community, the industry could create more than 800 jobs, add more than $153 million to the state’s economy and generate $1.8 million in tax revenue for North Carolina by 2017. In coming up with its figures, the agency considers direct employment, total employment impact and total direct spending related to the industry.

On the national level, the same agency expects the creation of 100,000 jobs and an $82 billion boost. The United States is the world’s biggest drone producer and the Federal Aviation Administration predicts that hundreds of unmanned design systems are in the works at American companies and agencies.

Commercial applications could include drones built to survey high-rise buildings without risk of harm to engineers, gather news for media outlets, deliver retail packages to your front door, help farmers keep a close watch on the conditions of sprawling crops or detect forest fires.

Open for drone business

Raleigh attorney Stephen Hartzell of Brooks Pierce is a media, communications and technology lawyer and a proponent of opening the skies to commercial drones. He followed the legislation this session on behalf of the N.C. Broadcasters Association and said that its passing has sent a message to drone stakeholders.

“It’s the General Assembly telling the world that ‘Hey, we’re a state that recognizes the importance and potential that drones have to the economy and we want y’all to know we’re open for business,’ ” he said.

North Carolina can’t open for business until the FAA says so. And so far, the agency responsible for providing safe airspace hasn’t shown quite the same enthusiasm in putting ink to paper regarding the governing of commercial drone use. As it stands right now, any commercial use of drones is prohibited by the FAA, save a couple of Arctic flights and six recently exempted filmmaking companies, which are still subject to tight restrictions. This leaves North Carolina, along with the rest of the country, idle and waiting for the federal green light.

There appears to be a sense of urgency in Congress, however. Frustrated with the FAA’s pace, it has tasked the agency with putting in place a comprehensive system to “safely accelerate the integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace” by September 2015.

According to its website, that mandated safe integration will be incremental. In other words, it is in no hurry to fill the skies with drones carrying Valentine’s Day flowers or streaming live news feeds. Encouraging, however, is its estimate that as many as 7,500 small (less than 55 pounds) commercial drones may be in use by 2018, “assuming the necessary regulations are in place.”

So, the passing of Senate Bill 744 has North Carolina standing ready, but preempted, as state Chief Information Officer Chris Estes of the Office of Information Technology noted as much in his report to the General Assembly.

‘Brave new world’

A General Assembly Commission on Unmanned Aircraft Systems met four times this year and presented their conclusions to the commission. In finding that drones have the potential to be a useful tool in areas such as law enforcement, agriculture and business, attracting industry and bringing jobs, the group recognized that there is the potential for inappropriate and even criminal use.

For instance, in April, a small drone carrying marijuana, cell phones and tobacco crashed outside prison fences in Bishopville, S.C., in a botched smuggling attempt. State and federal laws are already in place to address many potential criminal acts which could be carried out with a remote-controlled device, many of which share blurred lines with privacy violations, such as “Peeping Tom” statutes.

And according to the legislation, privacy concerns are on everyone’s radar.

During a recent speech at the Oklahoma City University School of Law, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor told students and faculty that Americans should be concerned about the spread of drones. Technology that can record conversations from miles away and through walls, she said, should be worrisome.

“We are in that brave new world, and we are capable of being in that Orwellian world, too,”  she said.

Hartzell agreed that privacy is absolutely a consideration, especially when “technology isn’t completely understood and the full scope of its uses isn’t completely understood.”

He pointed to cell phone cameras and highway cameras—essentially fixed robots—as innovations that were initially distrusted but have gained a measure of acceptance as they’ve become more mainstream.

“It’s a new technology, it’s mobile … there’s a healthy skepticism about what nefarious acts people can carry out,” he said.

As such, both civilian and police use of drones in North Carolina has been a topic of discussion and lawmaking in terms of “conducting surveillance.” For instance, law enforcement agencies owning drones – like the “remote-controlled helicopter” used by the Richland County, S.C., Sheriff’s Department or the fixed-wing plane owned by the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office – can’t use them for warrantless surveillance. Citizens can’t use them to peep into their neighbors’ homes.

In balancing the need for individual privacy with news gathering functions of the media, an exemption for “conducting surveillance” is written into the law for “newsgathering, newsworthy events, [and] events [and] places to which the general public is invited,” the law states.

Existing laws limit use

About two dozen other states have either enacted or introduced laws regulating drone use, including South Carolina, where much of the initial focus appears to be aimed at restricting what law enforcement and government agencies can do with the machines.

In the Palmetto State, policing the police has taken center stage.

Recently a bill introduced by Rep. Dan Hamilton, R-Greenville, passed the House 100-0 but died on the Senate vine. Under that bill, police agencies would need a warrant to use drones in investigations rather than having free rein to use them for random surveillance or routine patrols.

The newly passed North Carolina law is similar.

“There are limits,” Hartzell said. “Police can’t break into your house and search for things, so they can’t use a drone to do the same thing.”

Hamilton said he plans to reintroduce the bill this year and despite being a little hesitant to sponsor a bill that would be useless in the absence of federal regulations, he understands the potential upside to getting a head start on commerce.

“I think that moving forward I would like to look at the consumer and commercial use and make sure we’re ahead of the game, as well,” he said. “I may look toward North Carolina and see what they have done and maybe incorporate it into the commercial use and public use this year.”

Kyle Snyder, director of N.C. State University’s NextGen Air Transportation Center at the Institute for Transportation Research and Education, believes everyday commercial drone use may still be five or 10 years away.

 

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