Lawmakers consider drone-support legislation

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Rep. Val Peterson, R-Orem, is sponsoring the bill. (Photo courtesy Utah Legislature)

Rep. Val Peterson, R-Orem, is sponsoring the bill. (Photo courtesy Utah Legislature)

Even as residents of a small town in Colorado are preparing to vote on a law that would allow for hunting unmanned drones and Amazon testing delivery by drone, lawmakers in Utah are debating legislation supporting the unmanned aerial systems industry.

Privacy was the No. 1 issue on Monday when a House committee considered House Concurrent Resolution 3, which “expresses support for the development of unmanned aircraft systems, technologies and businesses” — a potentially huge industry for the state.

Ultimately, the committee decided to hold off on voting on the legislation (in a 7-3 vote) until Rep. Val Peterson, R-Orem, can amend it to more fully address privacy issues, and reiterate that privacy is protected by the Fourth Amendment.

Vincent Mikolay, managing director of business outreach and international trade for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, said he understands that civil liberties are an issue with drones, but the industry would be controlled just like any other surveillance system. The state doesn’t need to create unnecessary restrictions to the unmanned aerial systems industry, because residents are fully protected by the Fourth Amendment.

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Salt Lake City, said there is controversy around the use of drones, and said the public would need to be reassured about protections.

“There are privacy concerns, safety concerns,” she said. “I think we ought to have a little bit of caution involved in here as we go forward.”

Mikolay said right now drones cannot fly in unauthorized airspace, and that companies involved today would be coming to Utah to manufacture and test the systems. The testing would be done in “very rural areas” away from transmission lines and homes. Some of the applications could be identifying people inside a fire, finding missing people in forests or identifying malfunctions in pipelines — all testing that would need to be done in remote areas.

Peterson said Utah Valley University has an aviation program at the Provo Airport, and maybe that could even be a testing site.

The FAA now is authorizing areas where testing can be done — Utah isn’t authorized yet, but is still working on it — and by 2015 unmanned aerial systems will fly in the same airspace as commercial aircraft, he said.

He also says it’s important for Utah not to discourage companies involved in unmanned aerial systems from coming to Utah. In the next three years it will be a billion-dollar industry in the U.S., and Utah could be a leading location for businesses.

Peterson said he could amend the legislation to add that the Fourth Amendment would protect people from unreasonable searches by drones. But he didn’t have that amendment prepared on Monday. When Peterson has the amendment ready, the committee will again consider it.

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Amie Rose has more than 14 years of experience writing and editing at newspapers in Utah and New Mexico. She graduated from BYU with a degree in journalism. She lives in Utah Valley with her husband, toddler and crazy dog.

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