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Oregon considers drone regulation

SALEM — As the nation debates the use of drones to hunt terrorism suspects abroad, Oregon lawmakers are considering legislation that would regulate how drones could be used here.

The Oregon Legislature will consider three drone-related bills this session. One of them goes before the Senate Judiciary Committee today. The bill would require law enforcement agencies to obtain a criminal warrant before using drones for surveillance of private property, in all but emergency circumstances. State or local government bodies would be required to register with the state Department of Aviation to fly an unmanned aircraft in Oregon's skies.

The legislation is intended to ensure citizens' privacy.

"We think drones coming to Oregon raises significant privacy issues that can't be addressed under current law," said Becky Straus, a lobbyist with the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, which supports the bill.

But opponents of the legislation say it would discourage development of a new economic sector that could help Oregon — the manufacture of drones.

"That's a heartache we have with the committee bill," said Roger Lee, director of Economic Development for Central Oregon, a nonprofit group that is pushing to allow drone testing in the region. "It would add another layer of regulation on top of federal regulations."

Under current law, anyone can own a drone if they have a license from the Federal Aviation Administration. But extremely tight federal regulations and an extensive application process make it very difficult for the average person to obtain a flying permit. Bills regulating the use of drones are popping up around the country because Congress wants to streamline this application process and make it easier for public bodies to use domestic drones.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Oregon is one of more than 30 states considering regulatory action on domestic drones amid concerns that they will be used to spy on Americans.

Last week, in Washington state, a bill that would have regulated the use and purchases of drones by state agencies and local municipalities died without getting a vote. The bipartisan bill was supported by civil liberties groups and privacy advocates but had a powerful opponent: the Boeing Co., which argued it would have blunted job growth in the burgeoning drone manufacturing industry.

Among its provisions, the Oregon bill up for a hearing today would impose penalties on private citizens who use drones to eavesdrop, wiretap, stalk or trespass. It also makes killing game with a drone a crime.

Sen. Floyd Prozanksi, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the bill is intended to prevent the "misuse of drones" by citizens and law enforcement. The Eugene Democrat said more amendments will be introduced, and one would protect hobbyists who fly model aircraft from unnecessary penalties.