Government drones won’t be flying here anytime soon

EVERETT — You’re unlikely to see local governments flying drones in Snohomish County anytime soon. Bill Quistorf, the chief pilot for the sheriff’s office, is advising public agencies in the county to hold off on buying and using drones, at least until the Legislature passes clearer laws. That could happen this year.

Quistorf can’t make rules for anyone outside of county government, but he can give them a heads up on the situation. Government agencies that work in public safety, utilities, transportation and emergency communications all have talked about how drones could help with their duties.

“I’m in a position to help those outside agencies if they have questions or if they’re intending on purchasing an unmanned aircraft system,” he said. “Right now everyone has to follow the federal rules.”

There are too many unanswered legal questions, especially about privacy, he said. In this context, the term “drone” refers to a lightweight airborne device equipped with a camera. That’s different from the type used by the military for missile strikes.

For now, the conversation in Snohomish County is more about using drones to, say, check out damage at a rural bridge, or for a backcountry rescue, than for surveillance in criminal investigations. No local police departments in Snohomish County own a drone, according to an informal survey by The Herald.

“We’re not even close to using it for law enforcement,” Quistorf said. “There are larger hurdles to clear if we have any proposed plan to use it for law enforcement.”

Quistorf, a pilot since 1982, has worked with the Federal Aviation Administration for decades. During major incidents in Snohomish County — such as the Oso mudslide — he helps manage the airspace flight restrictions.

The feds have rules for drones in three categories: hobbyist, commercial and government. Each has its own set of restrictions. For a government to legally use a drone it must submit to a federal approval process that can take at least 60 days, complete with an on-site inspection. That can be expedited for emergencies, such as an earthquake.

“Based on my past experience in dealing with public agencies, they have been confused on what the rules are,” Quistorf said.

Hobbyist drones have been on the market for years now. The price has come down, and more people can afford one.

If a government employee owns a personal drone and flies it on official business, he could be breaking FAA rules, Quistorf said.

If Quistorf finds out any local governments are using a drone, he reaches out and provides information. That happened a few times in 2015, although he’s reluctant to name names.

One agency Quistorf says he talked with was the Snohomish County Emergency Radio System, or SERS. That agency has a drone, but the situation is a bit messy. The former director is under a criminal investigation for allegedly spending public money on purchases for himself, including tons of gravel and two security systems. Detectives found a drone bought with SERS money at the former director’s house. The drone could have been used to inspect emergency radio towers, but it isn’t clear whether that happened.

After word got out about the drone, Quistorf wrote SERS a letter about the county’s current policy.

The drone remains at the Lynnwood Police Department, logged as potential evidence in the criminal case, SERS’ new director, Jon “Wiz” Wiswell, said in an email last week.

“I can see it being useful to SERS, but, as far as I am concerned, we will not deploy it without following all Snohomish County rules, FAA rules, having properly trained operators, getting the buy-in from (Quistorf’s unit), and board approval,” he wrote.

The new state laws governing drones have been pending for at least two years. Quistorf anticipates that public agencies eventually will be required to keep archives of drone flight logs, operator information, aerial photos and videos. All of that information could be disclosable under public records laws.

That raises concerns because drones are likely to capture images of people’s faces, license plates and other data, he said. Those issues need to be sorted out.

“It goes back to privacy issues,” he said. “If you’re recording, there is the potential you inadvertently capture some private citizen’s information.”

After the Legislature tackles the issue, the county’s lawyers are expected to draft recommended policies for county government. Those policies likely would then undergo review by the county executive and the County Council.

Quistorf has helped obtain approval for the emergency use of a drone in Snohomish County just once, after the Oso mudslide. The request had to be supported by the FAA and the incident commander.

Quistorf was approached by a team from Texas A&M University. They offered to use drones to help with geological mapping of the disaster area. They were not allowed to operate until after the active recovery operation wrapped up.

The university’s drones could fly lower and capture high-definition photos and video that were “way beyond any capability we had, any capability anybody in the state had,” Quistorf said.

The drone images showed how the earth was settling and the river was moving. “It was immensely beneficial to the scientific community,” he said.

Others in government also recognize the potential.

The Snohomish County Public Utility District considered getting a drone in 2015, spokesman Neil Neroutsos said.

The footage could be useful for showing customers what’s happening at different sites, especially during emergencies, and explaining how the Jackson Hydroelectric Project works at Spada Lake. A drone also could be used to check on equipment and power lines, Neroutsos said.

“We determined the timing isn’t right at this point,” he said. “We’ve looked at it but we’re waiting to see how some of the regulations shape up.”

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

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