SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A push to establish limits in Utah on law enforcement's use of unmanned aerial systems is closer to becoming reality after a Senate panel unanimously approved some restrictions on drones Tuesday.
The Senate Government Operations and Political Subdivisions Committee voted 5-0 to advance the bill, which requires law enforcement to get a warrant to use drones and limits what data can be collected.
The measure now advances to the full Senate for consideration.
Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, is the sponsor of the measure, which he said is needed to head off any future misuse of the burgeoning technology.
"This gives them the tools to be effective in their job while ensuring citizen privacy," Stephenson said Tuesday.
His measure also requires agencies to report annually on their use of drones, including how many investigations required their use, how many times a warrant request was rejected and the cost of using the devices.
The report would be compiled annually and made public, Stephenson said.
His bill comes on the heels of a legislative resolution expressing support for the development of drone technology and the jobs it will generate in Utah. Lawmakers earlier this month only signed off on the message once it included a nod to preserving privacy.
The push-pull on drones is playing out in many states hoping to land the emerging industry while satisfying citizens' concerns that it opens the door to Big Brother surveillance. In 2013, at least nine states passed laws restricting the use of drones, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Five of those nine states also submitted bids to serve as drone-testing sites for the Federal Aviation Administration, which local officials have said they hope will be a financial boon for their states. Idaho also passed a resolution recognizing drone technology as a flourishing industry that would benefit the state.
This year, more than 130 measures dealing with the devices are pending in 35 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
While unmanned aircraft have mainly been used by the military, governments, businesses and hobbyists are itching to use the devices for everything from mapping out new roads and surveying agricultural fields to monitoring wildfires.
"We see that as a positive thing," Stephenson said, "because of the wonderful things that can be done to protect our citizens and our law enforcement officers through this."
Steve Erickson, who leads a privacy watchdog group Citizens Education Project, told lawmakers that Stephenson's measure was necessary to head off any violations of the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches.
He cited last year's revelations about the National Security Agency's large-scale collection of millions of Americans' phone records.
"We often hear the talk of a slippery slope up here," Erickson said. "In this case, with personal privacy and the Fourth Amendment, it's certainly a true situation."
Keith Squires, the commissioner of Utah's Department of Public Safety, told lawmakers that the devices are a valuable tool to law enforcement, offering a way to keep officers and the public safe.
Squires said he's cognizant that those uses will have to be balanced against privacy concerns.
"I appreciate this legislation and the guidelines that it provides for law enforcement and public safety officials moving forward," Squires said.
Drone devices often look like radio-controlled aircraft and helicopters. They can be as small as the remote-controlled toys or as large as a small to midsize jet airliner.
The FAA does not allow the commercial use of drones, but it's working to set up guidelines by the end of 2015.
Utah applied to serve as an FAA commercial-drone test site last year, but it was not one of the six sites selected.
Officials with the Utah Governor's Office of Economic Development said late last year that they would still like to see the industry develop in the state.
Stephenson said his bill does nothing to impede that effort, and he plans to include language acknowledging that in his bill as it works through the legislative process.
SB 167: http://1.usa.gov/1fIMWay