Drones are already flying in American airspace. Some law enforcement agencies have used them for search and rescue operations, security along the U.S.-Mexico border, weather research, and scientific data collection. But Congress last year authorized the Federal Aviation Administration to open America’s airspace to widespread drone flights by 2015.
Biss said his legislation is meant to prepare Illinois for the expanded drone use that will come with new FAA guidelines. The agency has estimated that more than 7,000 civilian drones could be surfing the sky within five years of 2015.
Across the nation, critics have expressed alarm at the expanded capabilities drones will give authorities.
In Washington state, Seattle’s police department purchased two drones through a federal grant, but gave up plans to use them after protests in February. A bill barring Virginia law enforcement agencies from using drones for two years was approved by the state’s General Assembly two months ago and awaits action by the governor.
The National Conference of State Legislatures has identified more than 70 bills in nearly 40 states that address the use of drones. Some try to define what should be considered a drone and others attempt to regulate their use by private individuals and law enforcement – often requiring a court issued warrant.
The unmanned aircraft vary in size and capability. Some can be as small as a hummingbird or look like a children’s remote-controlled toy, while others have wingspans as long as a 737 jetliner. They can be equipped with high-powered cameras, microphones, heat sensors, facial recognition technology or license plate readers. Similar technology has been used by the U.S. military and CIA to track down Al- Qaida operatives abroad.
Law enforcement agencies are eager to use drones because they can significantly drive down costs of surveillance by cutting fuel and maintenance bills, as well as manpower. Police helicopters can cost anywhere from $500,000 to $3 million, and about $400 an hour to fly.
Frank Bilecki, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office spokesman, said his department sees cost-saving benefits in locating missing people, prison escapees or even marijuana patches. Still, he said, the office is still at the “infancy stage” of deciding if and when it would seek to obtain a drone.
Regarding Biss’ bill, he said there’s a need for “more discussion (about) how quickly a warrant could be apprehended to be able to do those searches.”
The Champaign County sheriff’s office has test-flown its own drone, but the status of its program is unclear. Sheriff Dan Walsh declined to comment for this story, but his spokeswoman said the drone was broken and the department no longer has it.
Biss’ bill is backed by the American Civil Liberties Union. The group’s director of communications and public policy in Illinois, Ed Yohnka, said the senator’s proposal provides “modest” guidelines that should be put in place before the widespread use of drones begins in two years.<< previous 1 2