Law must catch up with drone technology

Delaware Drone Laws

This year’s wildfires justifiably have received much attention for their devastation on property, natural resources and human lives. One of the many story lines is the role that drone aircraft could play — both for the good and not so good.

The good is that the drones could perform a valuable role as eyes in the skies, safe from the flames and smoke that imperil firefighters and fire investigators. The bad news is that rogue drones, controlled by curious but careless operators, have flown over fire scenes and forced the grounding of firefighting aircraft out of concern for safety.

Even before the smoke clears on this fire season, it’s obvious that regulations must be put into place, with a defined delineation between federal and state jurisdiction. So what are the rules? “Honestly, this thing remains a convoluted mess,” says 15th District state Rep. David Taylor, who has taken on drone legislation during his time in Olympia.

Most of his attention has focused on privacy issues at the state level. One of his efforts in the most recent legislative session, HB 1639, would have required law enforcement and other agencies to get approval from the appropriate state or local government before purchasing a drone or any other “extraordinary sensing device,” in legislative speak. That proposal passed both houses but fell victim to disagreements on other bills and didn’t make it out of a Senate conference committee.

Taylor says his privacy proposals have wide bipartisan support, and he will try again. Meanwhile, he is also aware of the need to enable firefighters to use available technology in line with privacy and constitutional concerns.

The federal government, especially the Federal Aviation Administration, has focused more on keeping drones out of airspace for aircraft. The states, meanwhile, “are all over the board,” in Taylor’s words, when it comes to regulation.

Drones also have utility in search-and-rescue operations and in police reconnaissance. Our nation’s system of checks and balances can be used to address constitutional concerns. One example is a Taylor bill that involves the courts when agencies seek to use a cell site simulator, which law enforcement can use to impersonate a wireless service provider’s cell tower. That measure, HB 1440, cruised through the Legislature this year and has been signed into law.

Drone use by individuals may take awhile to figure out. But there should be repercussions if individual drones interfere with firefighters, police officers and others who are tasked with protecting public safety.

The technology means are there to help firefighters and other emergency personnel perform their jobs more effectively. The awareness is there about the possible abuse in the use of technology. What we need now, at the state and federal levels, is a concerted effort to allow the laws to catch up with technology and enable responders to better protect people and property.