NC House panel OKs draft bill on drones

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — North Carolina inched closer Wednesday toward allowing the use of unmanned aircraft — commonly known as drones — by individuals, businesses and government agencies.

The state House Committee on Unmanned Aircraft Systems approved draft legislation aimed at regulating drones, the use of which is currently under a moratorium.

With the proposed bill, the House panel wanted to set a balance between an individual’s privacy, law enforcement’s efforts to fight crime and the ability of a potentially lucrative new drone industry to flourish statewide, according to Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, a co-chairman of the committee.

“There are laws in place now that require law enforcement to get a judge-ordered warrant before they go do ‘x,’ for example. Well, a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) is just another tool in the toolbox to do what they are currently doing. So they will have to get a warrant,” Torbett said after the meeting.

The draft bill must be approved by the Legislative Research Commission before it can be introduced, possibly, during the legislature’s short session, which will start May 14. Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration is expected by the end of the year to establish a concurrent set of regulations on the use of drones.

One of the concerns that had been expressed by civil liberties advocates was over an individual’s right to privacy.

The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has said that draft legislation should protect against abuses by law enforcement.

Specifically, the organization wants a bill that would prohibit individuals and government agencies, including law enforcement, from using a drone to gather evidence or other data on an individual without first obtaining a warrant that shows probable cause of criminal activity, according to the ACLU of North Carolina.

Sarah Preston, the state director of the ACLU, said at the meeting that, in her view, the draft legislation provides protections against warrantless surveillance.

“They have to get that warrant to track you,” Preston said.

Among the draft bill’s other provisions: arming a drone with weapons would be a felony; individuals could take civil action if they feel their privacy rights have been violated; and licenses would have to be obtained to operate a drone.

The bill is a work in progress — and other concerns may have to be dealt with before the drone industry takes off. Rep. Carl Ford, R-Rowan, for example, wondered whether high school football games would be played under a buzz of drones as spectators try to take pictures and video of the game.

Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, expressed concerns about hobbyists being unduly limited in what they could do.

In the end, lawmakers said, new revenues from a burgeoning drone industry are compelling enough to move ahead.

The industry could balloon to $300 billion within a decade, according to Ted Lindsley, the CEO of Olaeris, a company that specializes in unmanned aerial systems — the technology that, affixed to unmanned aircraft, captures images.

And drone companies will migrate to North Carolina because the state has ideal terrain and an educated workforce for research and development, he said during the committee’s previous meeting in March.

Within the state, the Triad could play a key role because of the Triad’s “perfect” elevation of about 1,200 feet, Lindsley said.

Efforts to contact Lindsley on Wednesday were unsuccessful.

Olaeris has chosen North Carolina above 18 other states to set up its main office and has been in talks with Winston-Salem and Greensboro.

The first manufacturing plant would employ nearly 200 engineers, technicians, programmers, pilots, trainers and support personnel, according to Olaeris.

A key electronics component supplier to Olaeris has also expressed interest in opening a facility nearby once a site has been chosen, according to the company.

More than 30 supply vendors contacted Olaeris when the company chose North Carolina in December, Lindsley said.

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