Drone surveillance legislation fails to survive Olympia hearings

But drones could be in Mukilteo’s future
By Kylee Zabel | Mar 27, 2013

WNPA Olympia News Bureau — Although legislation regulating the use of drones has died in Olympia for this legislative session, it will likely fly again next year.

And, according to Mukilteo Police Chief Rex Caldwell, that could be a good thing.

Boeing is accused of halting the legislation that would have regulated the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which it builds, out of a concern that the legislation was too narrowly defined and should focus on broader surveillance technologies.

The bill, HB 1771, failed to advance.

Under the legislation, drone use would be prohibited by state agencies except for search-and-rescue, avalanche and other emergencies. Exemptions could be sought by a process outlined in the bill.

Chief Caldwell said drones could be helpful in combating crime.

“Any tool that helps us to gather evidence and convict criminals is likely a good one,” Calwell said.

Mukilteo doesn’t have any UAV or plans to purchase them, he said. They do have video cameras for crime scenes and evidence collection, but nothing aerial.

Caldwell said the closest example in his career occurred years ago when he used a lift on a truck to shoot overhead photos of a collision scene. Another time, he went up in a helicopter to get aerial shots of a crime scene.

Although the technology and conversations about UAVs, or drones, are picking up speed, the chief said he hasn’t yet had any conversations with the mayor, city administrator or City Council on the issue. That’s likely to change soon.

“UAVs are everywhere,” Caldwell said. “If one goes to Youtube, there are a lot of videos people have created of cameras in balloons, rockets, model planes, etc.

“Add to that the thousands of people who video their daily commute, bike ride, walk, etc. with GoPro equipment – the technology is all over the place and getting more common daily.”

The bill in Olympia arose as a result of a policy adopted by the Washington State Farm Bureau (WSFB) in November that regulated the use of drones when surveying farmland without the consent of the landowner.

WSFB passed its policy after hearing word that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was using drones to survey farmland in Nebraska and Iowa.

Legislation sponsor Rep. David Taylor (R-Moxee) was disappointed the bill did not advance this session, but is hopeful for its prospects next year.

While Taylor and other sponsors cannot be sure why Democratic leadership didn’t bring the bill forward for floor debate, some speculate that the concerns expressed by Boeing convinced the House majority to avoid floor action on the bill.

“We know Boeing was actively lobbying against the bill, and I can only assume their opposition caused the Democrat majority to not bring the bill forward,” suggested Taylor.

Susan Bradley of the Boeing Company said Boeing lobbied against the bill due to the belief that regulating drone use would have been counterproductive since the technology is just beginning to develop.

“The UAV technology is so new that regulation… requires a lot of thought and a lot of consideration and, in our view, the bill as it was presented just lacked that thorough consideration and evaluation,” she said.

Thirty-two other states have pursued policies that would regulate the use of drones, but no state has yet been successful in enacting legislation into law.

HB 1771 would allow use of public unmanned aircraft systems in criminal investigation situations provided a properly executed search warrant is obtained from a court.

Unless deemed necessary to implement the budget, the chances of this legislation making it through this session are slim. The session is scheduled to end April 28.

– Paul Archipley contributed to this story.

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