Bill Would Limit Police Use of Drones


While the Federal Aviation Administration today took a big step forward in its regulation of unmanned aerial vehicles, Hawaii state lawmakers are still struggling to things out at the local level.

A proposed Hawaii senate bill, SB579, would make it “unlawful for any law enforcement agency to use an unmanned aircraft to conduct surveillance, including but not limited to capturing images, photographs, or recordings.” I find this amusing, since there was a bill last year that would have banned the use of drones by anyone except law enforcement. (That bill eventually died.)

This year’s proposed bill favors the privacy rights of residents over police surveillance. There are limited exceptions for search and rescue operations, to assist in disaster relief, or to counter a high risk terrorist attack. Otherwise, police must get a search warrant that authorizes the use of a drone. The bill also calls for the protection of information collected with UAVs, and annual reporting on drone use by law enforcement.

In submitted testimony, many said they felt the bill was unnecessary or incomplete.

“If there is anything we have learned about technology, it is that new uses are discovered every day,” wrote a Hawaii Kai resident, who came up with other possible exceptions. “Traffic management, accident investigation, and crowd control come immediately to mind, but would be prohibited under [this bill’s] provisions.”

Carty Chang, interim chair of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources (which also has some law enforcement functions), also submitted testimony asking for another exemption that would allow the DLNR to use drones to patrol remote areas of state land, “protecting and managing Hawaii’s unique and limited natural, cultural, and historic resources.”

Personally, I think this bill restricting law enforcement use of drones is as pointless as last year’s bill doing the opposite. As Luis Salaveria, director of the state Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism, wrote, “There already is an existing body of federal, state and local laws relating to privacy that would apply to the operation of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) by government, commercial, and private operators.”

Salaveria said legislators should avoid “establishing regulations that would prohibit the numerous applications of this technology that can provide a wide range of economic, environmental, safety, and security benefits to the general public.” The same applications that the FAA is already carefully — and slowly — considering at the federal level.

SB579 was scheduled to be heard by a joint meeting of the senate’s public safety and transportation committees this past Thursday, but was deferred to separate committee hearings on Tuesday, Feb. 17. You can submit testimony online until midday tomorrow.

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