EDITORIAL: Drones bill belongs in legislative ‘dungeon’

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American skies will soon be abuzz with drones, and the number of uses to which they’ll be put leads us to envision swarms of the unmanned aerial vehicles zipping to and fro over our heads.

There seems to be no question about whether we will see drones; it’s only a matter of when. They’re already in use in some areas, and a Feb. 15 Associated Press report by Joan Lowy noted the Federal Aviation Administration “is required by a law enacted a year ago to develop sites where civilian and military drones can be tested in preparation for integration into U.S. airspace that’s currently limited to manned aircraft.”

Most of us have seen news reports about drones being used for military purposes and are familiar with the size and shape of those unmanned aircraft. In a report published Wednesday at TechNewsDaily.com, however, senior writer Jeremy Hsu wrote, “most drones resemble the radio-controlled aircraft and toy helicopters flown by hobbyists for decades, capable of taking off horizontally, vertically or by being thrown into the air like a trained falcon or hawk.”

As with any new technology, there is money to be made from drones and people anxious to put them into use. Hsu listed a number of needs drones can fulfill economically, such as inspecting the exteriors of large buildings or sites, and fighting wildfires. “U.S. corporations, such as FedEx, have already begun planning for the day when drones could deliver packages, he added. In another report Jan. 29, Hsu noted, “the flying robots could inspect bridges and roads, survey lands with laser mapping, and even alert officials to traffic jams or accidents.”

The list could go on forever.

With the proliferation of drones imminent, privacy concerns are also being expressed. A bill introduced in the Indiana General Assembly this session seeks to prevent violations of privacy by drones, but goes too far. A synopsis of Senate Bill 20 says it would make a person who uses an unmanned aerial vehicle to monitor a person, property, or thing without the written consent of the subject of the monitoring guilty of a Class D felony. Images or communications obtained through the use of drones would not be admissible as evidence. Even possessing images obtained by drones would be a crime and the use of public money to purchase them would be prohibited.

As a newspaper, we recognize the utility flying cameras could provide to us. In situations where we’re not permitted to cross police lines, for example, we could launch a drone to rise high for otherwise-unobtainable photos or video recordings of news events. We enjoy few rights not shared by other members of the public, and would expect no special treatment in the use of such equipment.

The latest action on SB 20, as of this writing, was its assignment to the Senate Rules Committee, called “the legislative equivalent of a dungeon” in a Feb. 20 news report describing the Senate president’s ability to limit the number of bills the full Senate will see.

We appreciate the intent of the bill, but as written, a dungeon is the proper place for it. Any drones legislation should provide privacy protections without being so restrictive as to make the technology useless. Rights now enjoyed by Americans, such as expectations of privacy in certain areas, should be protected, as should current laws permitting photography of actions occurring in public.

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