The Minnesota House of Representatives is joining over 20 other states in attempting to ban the use of “drones,” an informal term referring to a wide variety of remotely-operated aerial vehicles.  House File 1620 was proposed by Rep. Phyllis Kahn (DFL-60B) and is co-sponsored by several other legislators from both parties.  The bill would ban not only law enforcement use of drones, but also private individuals from using remotely-controlled aircraft to take photographs or video of any persons or private property without permission.  Violation of the proposed law would be a felony.  The bill is currently pending in committee.

Already, the state of Florida has passed a sweeping bill that prevents the use of drones by law enforcement without a warrant.  That bill was signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott on April 15, 2013.  HF 1620 appears to be one of the first that also bans the private use of drones.

Under the proposed legislation, a “drone” is defined as “a powered, aerial vehicle that (1) does not carry a human operator; (2) uses aerodynamic forces to provide vehicle lift; (3) can fly autonomously or be piloted remotely; and (4) can be expendable or recoverable.”  This broad definition would apply to both fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft.  This definition would apply to both Predator drones such as those used over Afghanistan as well as products like the Parrot AR.Drone that can be purchased at most malls in the country.  A person who buys such a product at a mall and inadvertently takes a picture of their neighbor would be guilty of a felony under the broad sweep of House File 1620.

The battle over unmanned aerial vehicles is likely to continue to play out while the Federal Aviation Administration develops rules for integrating unmanned vehicles into the National Air Space (NAS).  Under Public Law 112-95, the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, the FAA is required to develop rules for private use of drones by 2015.  Already the FAA has missed several key deadlines under the Act, and it is likely that the final rulemaking may also be delayed.

Under current law, the commercial use of drone technology is banned, although law enforcement agencies and educational institutions can get limited waivers to use drones.  There is a nascent private market for drone technology: last year Los Angeles-based realtors were using remotely-operated helicopters to take aerial imagery of properties for sale.  The FAA shut the business down.  Here in Minnesota several entrepreneurs have attempted to start businesses using drones for aerial photography and surveying but were forced out by the FAA.

The rise of this technology finds a close parallel in the rise of the Internet, with privacy concerns and legislative reactions conflicting with the promise of new technology. As with the Internet, it will likely be several years before the legal and regulatory regime is able to catch up with the rapid pace of technological development.

As of March 18, 2013, House File 1620 is currently before the Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee.  A similar bill, House File 1076 is also pending in committee. A more limited bill, House File 0612 would only ban law enforcement agencies from using drones to gather evidence. While it is unlikely these particular bills will pass in this legislative session, it is likely that similar legislation will be proposed in the future.