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S.C. Legislators Consider Privacy and Safety in Drone Regulation

August 24, 2015 - Posted in Palmetto Scene by Kaitlyn Park
drone flying over field

Drone technology has moved from the abstract to the mainstream. The word “drone” held connotations to military operations in the past, but the technology is now being used in everyday tasks like wedding or home videos to capture an aerial view of activities.

To understand just how more mainstream drones have become, SCNow News and the Associated Press report that the Federal Aviation Administration has found that pilot reporting of drones has more than doubled, with 238 unmanned aircraft sightings in 2014, and 650 reports this year.

While at first, this may seem like an interesting finding, it is also slightly troubling. The reports are coming from pilots of many sizes and types of aircraft, including large airliners and commercial flights. Essentially, should a drone come into contact with one of these aircraft or their engine, it could disable the engine like a bird would, or potentially damage the surface of the plane, which could affect and change airflow, and make the plane difficult to maneuver.

The SCNow and Associated Press report goes on to say that despite the fact that FAA regulations restrict drone flights exceeding 400 feet and coming within 5 miles from an airport, in early August, crews on four commercial flights preparing to land at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey spotted a drone.

Aircrews fighting wildfires have had to suspend operations several times, due to drone interference. The U.S. Forest Service reports that aircraft being used to fight fires have been interrupted by drones 13 times already this year, as opposed to four times last year. They were even used to smuggle contraband into a South Carolina prison. Though not all drone use is a nuisance. The State reports the technology has also been used to deliver medicines and help lifeguards spot sharks.

However, the use of drones over private property has brought up entirely new issues of privacy and safety, beyond the matters discussed above, and these problems combined have caused drone regulation to be discussed by many lawmakers. Though federal agencies like the FAA have regulations in place, and even fines up to $25,000 dollars, many states are looking to create their own legislation regarding drones, including South Carolina.

According to The State, legislators have proposed a bill that will likely be considered in the upcoming legislative session that would outlaw the use of drones over private property. Legislation is becoming more and more necessary, as the technology becomes more widespread, and there is no clear definition of what is and is not legal when it comes to the use of drones.

As the technology grows more prevalent, becomes easier to use and less expensive, the small crafts are becoming very popular among casual hobbyists. But this also means that it is easier for drones to encroach upon other’s discretion. The Beaufort Gazette reports that Democratic Sen. Vince Sheheen, who wrote the proposed bill, maintained privacy as his main objective.

The pending bill would amend existing trespassing laws, extending the jurisdiction to include flying drones on someone else’s property, and would also require that law enforcement could not use the technology on private property without a warrant. These issues create further debate, as the air above one’s home is not necessarily legally considered their property.

The Consumers Electronics Association predicted nearly 700,000 drones would be purchased this year, and that figure speaks to the necessity of federal and state legislation. Though there are some more informal guidelines in place for the hobbyist drone user. The Academy of Model Aeronautics for example, prohibits drone use where there is a certain expectation of privacy in their “Know Before You Fly” guide, which was developed with the FAA, according to SCNow News.

Other states like California and Tennessee are following in South Carolina’s footsteps and are working to pass their own laws, as Congress urges the FAA to make more concrete rules for drones, says The State. California has proposed that drones not be flown on private property below a certain altitude, and Tennessee has outlawed drone use on private property entirely.

While the South Carolina bill awaits deliberation in the upcoming session, it is clear that the conversation on drones and their professional and recreational use is far from over.

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