By J.T. Rushing, correspondent
WASHINGTON — Amid a growing backlash against the use of military and non-military “unmanned aerial vehicles,” Congress on Wednesday took a tentative first step toward legislation to rein in their domestic, non-military use in U.S. airspace.
With Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, playing a key leading role, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing intended to balance the law enforcement benefits of drones with an individual’s right to privacy. Grassley is the top Republican on the Democratic-controlled committee.
Grassley quizzed a quartet of witnesses including a law professor from the University of Washington, the CEO of a drone manufacturing company in Virginia, a privacy advocate from Washington D.C. and a veteran deputy with the Mesa County, Colo. Sheriff’s Office. During the hearing, two different drones were perched on the end of the witness table, each about the size of a small household appliance.
While acknowledging that the machines can have a tremendous public benefit in terms of public safety or natural disasters, Grassley said the accompanying loss of privacy may not be worth it.
“Drones can be used by farmers to provide a birds-eye view of a field and help a farmer survey crops more quickly for early signs of pests or disease,” said Grassley, a farmer himself. “They may be used to spray crops to maintain their vigor, check on livestock, and prevent theft of crops, livestock and equipment. These are all time-saving and cost-saving benefits.
“But no farmer would appreciate government drones constantly flying overhead, playing the role of Big Brother. And no one wants drone technology to end up in the hands of a harassing neighbor, child predator, stalker, drug dealer, violent criminal, or terrorist.”
After the meeting, Grassley told The Gazette he wants to further explore the privacy and constitutional consequences of drones before deciding to draft legislation.
“When it comes to law enforcement and the government, we’ve got to make sure the Fourth Amendment is being abided by,” he said. “And it brings in a lot of questions that have not been answered yet.”
Although estimates vary, most experts believe the Federal Aviation Administration has issued about 200 licenses, called a Certificate of Authorization (COA), for drones used in U.S. airspace. The vast majority of them belong to some type of government agency, with only a small handful going to private companies.
Asked for his thoughts on drones, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, referred to a California-based company, AirCover Integrated Solutions Corp., that has announced plans to build a drone-manufacturing plant in Cedar Rapids. The company did not return repeated calls for comment.
“Investments in technology like AirCover and the work of small business will continue to help the Iowa economy,” Harkin said. “These unmanned systems could prove invaluable for law enforcement, public safety and for rapid response to aid in crisis management. Once the public understands the versatility of these systems to save precious time in gaining insight in critical situations, I believe that some of the concerns will be alleviated.”
Eastern Iowa’s two congressional representatives, Democrats Dave Loebsack and Bruce Braley, called for more scrutiny over military drones, but Braley said domestic drones should be embraced and that their manufacturers should be helped.
“There is tremendous potential for unmanned aerial vehicles to play a role in civilian life, whether it’s in applications like scientific research or crop dusting,” Braley told The Gazette.
In the absence of any official federal legislation governing drones, about 30 states have adopted their own regulations. In Iowa, that effort is still continuing, with Cedar Rapids Rep. Rob Hogg holding a key role among a group of lawmakers pushing for tighter regulations. Hogg chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, where a bill landed this winter that would have banned weaponized drones in Iowa and established a moratorium on even non-weaponized drones until July 1, 2015, except in cases of a disaster or rescue operation.
However, Hogg said the bill was poorly drafted and was filed so late that lawmakers were left insufficient time to fix the errors. He said that bill or another bill will be taken up again next year to address the issue.
“I personally think unregulated drone use poses some threat to people’s privacy, along with some safety issues,” Hogg said. “It would be appropriate for the state to regulate it to the extent that the federal government hasn’t regulated it.”
Hogg conceded that the primary authority over drones in U.S. airspace rests with the federal government, but said there is a role for the state as well. For example, he said Iowa lawmakers could restrict or ban the use of drones by private companies or government agencies inside the state.
“There is room for state government to have some regulations, and this technology is so new that now is a perfect time to set those regulations,” Hogg said.