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Texas drone bill sparks a battle

Jaikumar Vijayan | May 20, 2013
Media groups, and even some privacy advocates slam Texas effort to limit drone use as a threat to free speech.

In an email to Computerworld, Calzada pointed to a 2012 incident involving a meatpacking company in the Dallas area. A local citizen, using a simple camera-equipped remote-controlled airplane flying at low-altitude, took several photos of the Trinity River. On retrieving his photos, he noticed what appeared to be blood and notified authorities.

Local and state authorities later confirmed that untreated pig blood was being released into the river by a meatpacking plant. The discovery led to an 18-count indictment charging the company and two of its executives with offenses.

"If this bill were in place at the time, the citizen who blew the whistle on this horrible event would be criminally liable. In addition, he would be subject to a civil lawsuit," Calzada said in the email.

The Dallas Morning News and area television stations that carried the images would have also been subject to lawsuits, she said. "The way the bill is written, I could be standing in a public place and the UAV could be in a public place, but because private property is simply in the photograph, I would be liable."

Such sentiments are notable, she said. Until now, the most vocal protests related to drones have been from people opposed to the use of UAVs over domestic airspace.

Concerns about drone use have been growing ever since President Barack Obama signed off on the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 last year. The bill permits commercial UAVs to operate over U.S. airspace.

Some experts estimate that there could be as many as 30,000 drones operating over U.S. skies in the next few years, which has alarmed privacy and rights advocacy groups.

Privacy advocates fear that drones equipped with cameras, license plate readers and other sophisticated monitoring equipment will allow law enforcement and commercial entities to carry out unprecedented surveillance of U.S. citizens. Such concerns have already prompted several states to pass, or consider passing laws that would limit what drone operators can and cannot do.

Drone industry lobbyists such as Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) insist that privacy and civil rights concerns tied to drones stem from a misunderstanding of how they will be used. AUVSI and other groups say that drones can be useful in many areas, including law enforcement, traffic management, crop monitoring, land management, news reporting, real estate sales and filmmaking.

Melanie Hinton, a spokeswoman for the AUVSI said the Texas legislation aims to rewrite search warrant requirements and create a separate distinction for unmanned systems.

"Would search and rescue teams not be able to use [Unmanned Aerial Systems] to take photos of an area where a missing child is thought to be? Would researchers be prohibited from using UAS to photograph hurricanes or tornadoes in efforts to better understand them and predict their paths? Would farmers be prohibited from using UAS to take images of their crops to efficiently check for signs of drought or blight?" she asked.


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