ANNAPOLIS – As Montgomery County’s four drones lie in wait, the General Assembly is examining ways to protect privacy while still allowing public safety officials, businesses and hobbyists to use drones.
Delegate Aruna Miller (D-15-Montgomery County) has proposed legislation that would generally prohibit using unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to intentionally collect information or record someone or private property. The bill includes exceptions for cases in which the user has a search warrant; the drone is for emergency response; the observed individual gave consent; or the owner of a facility inspects the facility even if on someone else’s property.
Since the county purchased four drones of its own last year – three for the county Fire and Rescue Service (MCFRS) and one for the County Executive’s Office of Innovation – the County Council has been waiting to see how other people legislate their use, according to Councilmember Marc Elrich (D-At large), chair of the Public Safety Committee.
In October, the County Council passed a resolution saying they planned to review potential legislation on drones and urged County Executive Ike Leggett to allow the police and fire departments to use drones in life-saving situations.
Although MCFRS used the drones in training at first, spokesperson Pete Piringer said they have not used the drones as the county waits to legislate. Montgomery County Police Chief Tom Manger also said he has no plans to use drones until he works through legal and privacy concerns.
“I think the protections on the police, that you have to have a warrant or you have to be in a life-saving situation is totally valid. I think the fire department, which actually has drones, has a great use for them where they can send them to get views of fires that a human being can’t possibly get. So I think there are legitimate uses for the technology. I’m more concerned about private use,” Elrich said.
Christopher Vo, one of the organizers of the D.C. Area Drone Users Group, said part of the problem with legislation specifically about privacy of drones is that it does not take a broad view of the issues.
“Technology is evolving and the legislation should be tuned to not just particularly…drones or flying robots but to any technology that could be used to invade our privacy,” Vo said. “All these bad behaviors…there are already rules related to them and a lot of people in the community believe there should not necessarily be new laws to cover those bad behaviors done by drones (specifically).”
Vo said some of the people most concerned about both privacy and safety are current drone users. He gave the example of seeing someone fly a drone in a restricted area or too high in the air in a YouTube video.
“The entire community of drone users attacks them pretty much and says, ‘oh that was terrible, that’s not a good idea,’” he said. “I tend to hear more people who are bothered by these things in the community than people outside of the community. “
Some drone users in the area also worry about legislative implications for businesses using the drones in new ways. Ken Druce, another organizer of the D.C. Area Drone Users Group, started a business called Unmanned Sensing Systems, International (USSI). Among the many potential industrial uses for drones, Druce’s business would focus mainly on helping farmers and the environment using infrared or other sensors.
“Drones (can) take pictures of crops and you can use that data, supply that data to farmers and the farmers can actually make decisions on how to treat their plants with chemicals or nutrients or water, whatever it is,” Druce said. “It can…save time, save money, and if you’re helping a farmer know exactly what his plants are doing, maybe they’re not going to put down as many chemicals or nutrients on the ground and then you don’t have it running off into the estuaries or the water.”
Druce said no one has to worry about the data privacy of his company. Whoever hired them to take certain kinds of pictures owns the data, and it would be stored and sent using a secure server.
“We have a lot of problems with people saying ‘you can’t fly drones in the park, you can’t fly them here, you can’t fly them there.’ The issue is people don’t really engage the people that fly these to really even understand what they’re all about,” Druce said.
Elrich said he could see the need for certain areas or parks for private users to practice or have fun flying the drones, just as parks exist for remote control flyers.
Elrich also supported regulations on not interfering with airspace regulations. The Federal Aviation Administration recently released a proposed rule that would regulate who could fly drones and how high they could fly them.
Those interested in the legislation can speak at the public hearing on March 17 at 1 p.m. in Annapolis.