Concerns raised over bill restricting drone use

SEATTLE — The state Department of Natural Resources wants to test the use of drones to combat wildfires this year.

But an agency official testified before senators Wednesday that a bill proposing strict regulations on the purchase and use of unmanned aerial vehicles could hinder their plans.

Deputy Supervisor Randy Acker, who oversees the state’s wildfire protection program, said the department has submitted an application to the Federal Aviation Administration to test out a drone during this year’s wildfire season.

“DNR sees tremendous potential to use unmanned aircraft more effectively in fighting wildfires and thereby allowing us to reduce suppression costs,” Acker said before the Senate Law and Justice Committee.

Acker said the department uses helicopters to collect fire data, but those operations can’t always be safely carried out in heavy smoke or at night.

“It is under these conditions that we believe unmanned aircraft could prove in the future to be extremely valuable,” Acker said.

He added drones also would be cheaper than helicopter flights.

Republican and Democrat lawmakers are working on a proposal that would impose restrictive regulations on drones. They include a mandate 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 warrants and erase data collected if the surveillance target has done no criminal activity.

Proponents of the drone bill said they have worked out language allowing agencies like the Department of Natural Resources to obtain drones. But the agency’s concerns underlined other hesitations expressed about the measure, which has attracted bipartisan support.

It wasn’t immediately clear if department officials have reviewed the changes to the bill.

Mitch Barker of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs said the use of drones by law enforcement agencies would be better decided in court cases.

“I think our courts have done an excellent a job providing checks and balances,” Barker said.

The Association of County Officials argued the drone bill is attempting to regulate law enforcement searches, which are already covered in existing state and federal laws.

Democratic Sen. Senator Maralyn Chase of Shoreline, the sponsor of the Senate bill, said the drone issue is not only about civil liberties but about jobs, because some of the vehicles are manufactured in Washington.

“There is a place in our society for the use of drones,” Chase said in testimony.

Lawmakers in at least 11 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 FAA began establishing safety standards for civilian drones, which are becoming increasingly affordable and small in size.

Earlier this month, the city of Seattle abandoned its drone program after community protests. The city’s police department had purchased two drones through a federal grant.

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