FILE – In a Monday, Jan. 13, 2014 file photo, an aerial drone with a high quality video camera records the landscape of the Berkshire Equestrian Center in Richmond, Mass. Drones have been used to market luxury properties in other areas of the country. New Hampshire is considering joining a handful of states that have placed restrictions on commercial and government use of drones to protect people’s privacy. The Legislature considered regulations last year, but failed to act. (AP Photo/The Berkshire Eagle, Ben Garver, File)
CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Two state lawmakers have resurrected an effort to limit the use of drones to protect residents’ privacy, despite the failure of efforts last year.
New Hampshire was among 43 states last year to introduce bills and resolutions concerning the unmanned aircraft. But the legislation that would have prohibited drones from snapping pictures of people’s houses couldn’t make it through the state House.
This year, Republican state Reps. Neal Kurk and Joe Duarte have sponsored separate bills to require police to get a warrant if they want to use evidence obtained by using drones as surveillance. Because of questions last year about possible conflicts with federal law, Kurk has included a provision in this year’s bill that it would only take effect if it’s allowed under federal law.
The military and some law enforcement agencies already use the devices, but the Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t allow commercial use of drones. By last month, 545 drones had FAA authorization to fly in domestic airspace, but Kurk didn’t think any in New Hampshire had been licensed.
Kensington Police Chief Mike Sielicki, who is president of the New Hampshire police chiefs association, opposes the bills because uses for the technology are still evolving. He envisions using a drone when intervening in a domestic dispute or apprehending a bank robber.
“This could save lives,” he said. “It could save civilians. It could save officers.”
Kirk Broders, an assistant professor of plant pathology at the University of New Hampshire, has been using a small hexicopter — a small drone that hovers — to photograph apple orchards to pinpoint problems. Under Kurk’s bill, Broders would have to get permission from property owners and anyone whose picture his research drone captured — a hurdle that could stifle his research.
“The future use would be to provide information to individual apple orchards or a crop grower,” he said. “All they would need would be a drone to fly over their field.”
The tiny hexicopter was built for about $2,000 — less than the cost to rent a helicopter for a couple of hours to do the same field examination, he said.
Mario Mairena of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an international trade group that promotes drones, said unmanned aircraft should fall under the same warrant requirements as manned aircraft, such as helicopters and airplanes.
“If we’re going to have an honest debate about surveillance, it should be technically neutral. It should be about the ability to collect, use and store personal data and not solely by the means it is collected,” he said.
Congress has given the FAA until September 2015 to integrate the private and commercial use of drones into U.S. airspace. The FAA retains jurisdiction over the safe and efficient use of airspace, but state and local governments have the power to restrict the use of drones operated by government or a university.
Kurk insists that New Hampshire must protect its residents’ privacy rights before drones start filling the skies.
“I don’t want someone to know where everyone is all the time just because they’re out in public,” said Kurk, who represents Weare.
Duarte, like Kurk, believes the risk for abuse is too great if police don’t obtain a warrant when they wish to target someone for surveillance. Both bills allow for emergency exceptions.
“Folks here in this state and across America don’t want their freedoms to be curtailed or put aside in any way,” said Duarte, a Candia lawmaker.
Devon Chaffee, executive director of the New Hampshire chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, agreed that privacy must be protected but said First Amendment rights to free speech also must be preserved. Those rights include journalists’ rights to take photos of people in public, he said.
But Kurk believes the technological differences between using drones and manned aircraft to take photographs are enormous. Drone surveillance costs less and allows users to gather more information cheaply over an extended period for later review, raising fears for some of a Big Brother society with government surveillance.
“This is ‘1984’ gone berserk. (Author) George Orwell couldn’t even imagine this,” Kurk said.