State legislators are looking to restrict how the aerial drones that have become popular in the Middle East can be used in the skies over here. Arizona Public Radio's Howard Fischer reports.
The issue arises because the Federal Aviation Administration is under a mandate from Congress to allow the unmanned aircraft to use airspace now reserved for planes with pilots by 2015. The immediate need is to find six sites across the country to run tests. And Arizona lawmakers want one of them to be here.
Representative Tom Forese said this could result in thousands of jobs. "On the other hand, you have significant effects to our privacy and I take them very seriously", Forese said. "We're talking about the potential to be searched without a warrant. We're talking about law enforcement having a drone, and having a camera in that drone, and being able to see into your back yard."
His legislation would require police to have a search warrant, signed by a judge, before they could spy on anyone this way. But, Representative Bob Thorpe said the potential for misuse of the new technology goes far beyond law enforcement. He said, "I actually feel that I have a greater threat from somebody running down to Fry's Electronics and buying a $300 video helicopter and flying around my house. I feel more threatened by that, a Peeping Tom or something, than having Big Brother flying overhead."
At the moment, though, Forese's bill addresses only limiting law enforcement use of the drones. That, however, is not the case with a proposal by Representative Jeff Dial. Aside from restrictions on police, his measure would make it illegal for any individual to use a drone "to monitor other persons inside their homes or places of worship or within the closed confines of their property". The debate is taking place even as the state House is getting ready to vote for a resolution urging Arizona to have its congressional delegation work with others to pursue the effort to become one of those six test sites.
Thorpe said he wants privacy protected. "But at the same time, to ensure that Arizona stays solvent, stays growing, that we have jobs and prosperity here", Thorpe said. "We need to do everything in our power to encourage companies to relocate here and bring jobs that will improve the future of Arizona.
But Representative Kelly Townsend warned colleagues against letting their desire for economic development overwhelm the constitutional rights of Arizonans. Townsend said, "I know we're desperate for jobs in our economy. But I would caution that as our underlying motivation for doing something that in the future would compromise our civil liberties for the sake of money."
House Majority Leader David Gowan suggested that his colleagues were being overly worrisome. He said anyone afraid of being spied upon from the sky is ignoring existing technology. "We have flights up there that are manned that can do the same thing. So it's already coming", Gowan said. "What we're talking about is looking to the future here and presenting something for it where we can actually save lives maybe in the future where we have unmanned aircraft going into battle instead of manned aircraft."
While Tom Forese is pushing the privacy bill, he also is the sponsor of the resolution to try to lure the test site to Arizona. He said legislators need to consider all angles and think about the impacts of these drones before they're actually flying over the state. He said, "part of our job in protecting folks is to look into these things very, very carefully. And so I take it seriously. I think we need to make sure we strike the right balance."
Both measures are set to be debated today.