Look, up in the air ...

Lawmakers should act now to regulate the use of drones by police and others

Before drones become commonplace in Oregon skies, the state Legislature should take carefully measured steps to protect public privacy and safety from threats posed by both public- and private-sector use of the unmanned aircraft.

The drone revolution will become reality in Oregon and elsewhere across the country far more quickly than many people expect. Last year the Federal Aviation Administration estimated that 10,000 drones will be in use in U.S. airspace within the next five years. Others estimate the number at two times, even three times, that amount.

Used for many years by the U.S. military for overseas surveillance and combat missions, drones provide state and local law-enforcement agencies with a relatively low-cost alternative to the helicopters and airplanes that are currently used for search-and-rescue missions, manhunts, SWAT team operations, car chases and traffic control.

Meanwhile, industry experts anticipate a multibillion dollar market for civilian drones, and Congress last year directed the Federal Aviation Authority to prepare regulations for civilian drone operations by 2015.

Relying on Congress to get a vitally important job done correctly in a timely manner is hardly a safe bet these days. So lawmakers in at least a half dozen states, including Oregon, have begun considering legislation that would regulate the use of unmanned aircraft by private companies, citizens and law enforcement agencies.

In Oregon, Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, and Rep. John Huffman, R-The Dalles, have introduced separate bills that would, among other things, make it a crime to use drones to fire bullets or missiles or to spy on people. Prozanski recently explained to The (Portland) Oregonian newspaper that he drafted his legislation, Senate Bill 71, in part because "the last thing I think people want to do is look outside their picture window or their bedroom window and see a drone."

Any time there are billions of dollars to be made in an emerging industry, an effort to regulate that industry is certain to prompt determined and well-funded opposition, and that is likely to be the case in Oregon.

Consider, for example, that Insitu, a Boeing subsidiary and major developer of drones, is in the Hood River area of the Columbia River Gorge where an estimated 500 employees test and develop new drone designs.

Meanwhile, economic development officials in Central Oregon who are pushing for the Bend area to become a hub for drone testing already have served notice that legislative efforts to regulate drones will endanger efforts to recruit manufacturers.

That needn't be the case. There is plenty of time for industry representatives to work with lawmakers, aviation experts, civil liberties groups and others to make sure that legislation not only protects public privacy and safety, but that it doesn't impose unnecessary restrictions on the operation, manufacture and testing of drones in Oregon.

Prozanski's and Huffman's concerns about the need to regulate the domestic use of drones by public agencies, private companies and, for that matter, private citizens are valid — especially in the absence of anything resembling comprehensive federal regulations.

Let the drone conversation begin.

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