Bill regulating drones dies in Legislature

SEATTLE — Despite having support from Democrats, Republicans, civil liberties advocates and those concerned over government intrusion, a measure regulating the use and purchases of drones by state agencies and local municipalities died in Olympia without getting a vote from any chamber.

Lawmakers said there wasn’t enough time: At the House, the grappling over gun background checks ate up the clock before a voting deadline. In the Senate, a chair said proposed changes to the bill weren’t ready in time to clear his committee.

But the bill also saw opposition from one of the most influential players in Olympia: The Boeing Co. The aerospace manufacturer, one of the largest employers in the state, argued the bill would hurt future jobs in the growing unmanned aerial vehicle industry.

“In our view, WA state House Bill 1771 did not provide a sufficiently thorough and thoughtful framework. Further, we believe that as the technology matures, best practices and new understanding will emerge, and that it would be counterproductive to rush into regulating this burgeoning industry,” Boeing said in a statement.

A Boeing company, The Insitu Group, which has several operations along the Columbia River Gorge, employs about 800 employees making drones, spokeswoman Sue Bradley said.

One of their models, dubbed the ScanEagle, is currently in use by the U.S. Navy. The aircraft is 4-feet long and has a 10-foot wingspan. It can remain in the air for 15 hours, according to Boeing’s site.

“The problem with the bill is that it would have essentially dampened our ability to manufacture products,” said Larry Brown, who heads legislative matters at the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District 751. “This would have dampened the likelihood of using Washington as a manufacturing center for these.”

The union didn’t take an active position on the bill in Olympia, Brown said.

The proliferation of domestic drone use has kindled opposition across a wide spectrum.

Lawmakers in more than 30 states are looking at plans to restrict the use of drones over their skies amid concerns the vehicles could be exploited to spy on Americans. Concerns have increased since the Federal Aviation Administration began establishing safety standards for civilian drones, which are becoming increasingly affordable and small in size.

The city of Seattle abandoned its drone program after community protests in February. The city’s police department had purchased two drones through a federal grant without consulting the city council.

“I’m willing to admit there are people who are criminals, but the majority of our citizens are law abiding people who value their privacy,” said Democratic Sen. Maralyn Chase of Shoreline, who sponsored the Senate bill. “That’s why you have to get a warrant to search somebody’s house. We try to stay on the straight and narrow. That’s why so many people are unhappy about spy planes.”

In Olympia, the companion drone bills were sponsored by two politically different lawmakers. One a Democrat from the Puget Sound region. The other a Republican from central Washington.

“I think the bill frightened the industry folks who manufacture these,” said Democratic Rep. Roger Goodman, chairman of the House Public Safety Committee which approved the bill on a 8-1 vote. “So they were very active in lobbying influential members of the democratic caucus.”

Gov. Jay Inslee’s spokeswoman Jamie Smith said the governor’s office took no official position on the measure. But Goodman said he was approached by the governor’s office with some concerns over job creation.

The bill would have mandated that law enforcement agencies obtain approval from their respective legislative government before buying a drone. The measure also would require law enforcement agencies to obtain criminal warrants before using the drones, with a few exceptions.

The measure called for deletion within 30 days of data gathered if no criminal activity is recorded. It requires erasing data collected from people who are not the target of a drone deployment within 24 hours. The state National Guard had been exempted from the restrictions.

The measure focused on state and local government drones and did not attempt to regulate private use. The Department of Natural Resources voiced concerns over the measure because it has been attempting to obtain FAA permission to fly drones during wildfire season this year.

It also had no authority over federal use of drones. At least one Homeland Security 10,000-pound drone already occasionally patrols the skies along the border in Eastern Washington.

“In terms of time, the Legislature needs to step up and show leadership and get out ahead of the technology instead of chasing behind it,” said Shankar Narayan of the Washington chapter of the American Civil Liberties. “It’s unfortunate now we’ll have to wait another year. Not only is the technology proliferating, there are going to be more drones a year from now and the public has a lot of concerns. Those will go unaddressed for another year.”

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