Science Policy Friday: Eyes of the Skies, Drones on the Rise

Science Policy Friday: Eyes of the Skies, Drones on the Rise


SciPoliFri_Box.gifThis is the first in a series of articles or news gathering of science and technology policy issues facing New Jersey or the nation. Thanks to my science and environment intern Arcadia Lee for research and drafting this article. Cross-posted on BlueJersey.com

Drones seem to be everywhere in the news.  We may have seen the latest cool uses like The Lily Camera and Amazon's package delivering drones.  Or read about concerns over safety and privacy, whether from amateur operators getting in the way of California firefighters or fears of government abuse of information gathering.

For New Jersey policymakers, safety has to be the primary focus as our state considers how best to assess and manage the risks associated with governmental, commercial and civilian use of drones within our borders.  I along with colleagues in the Assembly and Senate have introduced two timely bills that provide needed rules of unmanned aerial vehicles, otherwise known as UAVs or drones, so that the promise of new technology can be realized without the inherent dangers to privacy and safety.  In addition Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman has passed Legislation in the House of Representatives regarding drones and their threat to security.

This first article focuses on NJ's potential governmental use of drones and creating an important framework that balances privacy with the promise of enhanced capabilities by public safety.  The bill (A-1039/S-2310) sponsored with Speaker Prieto and Senator Sacco, sets forth certain standards to be followed by law enforcement agencies and fire departments when utilizing drones.

The list of ways drones can help society seems endless.  UAVs can help sell real estate, deliver packages, help farmers plot crops, fight crime, take great sports footage, inspect oil rigs, transport medication to less developed countries, monitor wildlife, among many other great and wonderful things.  Drones can perform more than just routine functions, they can be used by authorities to save people's lives, such as searching for survivors in burning buildings, monitoring atmospheric levels of radiation or toxins in high-prone areas, guarding our national borders, or helping to put out wildfires.

Bill (A-1039/S-2310) creates clear standards to be followed by law enforcement agencies and fire departments when utilizing drones in order to protect privacy rights of New Jersey citizens. There has been much concern raised by residents about the increased use of drones invading personal privacy and this bill would establish common sense guidelines for government agencies to follow.

This bill does a few different things to establish proper and reasonable guidelines for authorities. Law enforcement agencies would be required to retain a warrant to utilize a drone, except in the event of an emergency or terrorist act and they would be able to utilize drones for search and rescue missions.  The Department of Environmental Protection would be able to utilize drones to survey or monitor the extent of a forest fire. All fire departments would be permitted to utilize drones to survey or monitor the extent of a fire in situations where unmanned aerial systems are helpful to firefighters in obtaining visual and oratory information on the damage.  It would be required that agencies submit maintenance records on the UAVs to the Office of the Attorney General and have them annually inspected for safety issues.

With regard to privacy concerns: any verbal or video communications that are unrelated to an arson or criminal investigation would have to be discarded within 14 days.  Evidence illegally derived by a law enforcement agency from the use of a drone would be prohibited from being used as evidence in a criminal prosecution.   Drones would be prohibited from being equipped with an "antipersonnel device," i.e. being used as a weapon or offensively.  Under the bill, a person who operates a drone equipped with an antipersonnel device is guilty of a crime of the fourth degree (punishable by up to 18 months imprisonment, a fine of up to $10,000, or both).

Unfortunately, in the last NJ Legislative Session this bill was pocket vetoed by Governor Christie.  Reintroduced by its sponsors, A-1039/S-2310 has already passed the Assembly and is awaiting Senate action.  Given all the news about great use of drones by local and state agencies, the need for this legislation is becoming more apparent.  

Next week, we will look at another bill (A-4344) sponsored by Assembly Homeland Security Chair Annette Quijano and myself that would regulate commercial drone use to protect critical infrastructure.

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